The Struggle of Middle-Class Women’s Work in Pakistan

By Cecilie Mueenuddin

Towards the end of my year-long ethnographic field research in Lahore in 2017, I met a young woman over lunch in the canteen at her office. Eight months pregnant, she was determined to return to work as soon as her three months of maternity leave were finished. When I asked about her working hours, she told me that she was expected to be at the office from 9 AM to 6 PM every day. In the maddening stand-still traffic jams of rush-hour Lahore, travelling to and from the office took at least another hour. Once her maternity leave was over, she would leave her 3-month-old baby at home with a mother or mother-in-law for ten or more hours a day. When she arrived home exhausted from her office job, one would like to imagine her finally cooing over the baby that she had not seen since morning. More likely, however, she would be occupied with the unpaid domestic work of cooking, ironing, and serving her husband and in-laws, until she finally collapsed in bed around midnight — only to get up at dawn to cook for the family all over again.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk to her again to see how her plans worked out. Based on dozens of interviews and conversations with similarly-placed women, as well as my own experience combining motherhood and a career, I quietly wondered whether she would be able to maintain the double shift of her job and housework. I also wondered how she would feel about leaving her baby at home for so long]. Would she, like so many other women, ultimately resign from her job to focus on caring for her family — telling herself, as women often do, that it was just “until the children are older?”

This scenario, common not only in Pakistan but around the world, shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our lives and societies are organized today. Women around the world are encouraged to join the labor force, yet both the workplace and household work continue to be structured by patriarchal gender norms, making our attempts at “having it all” — a job and a family — complicated at best. 

In Pakistan, the World Bank has called women’s employment “an economic and social strategy,” arguing that the progress of the nation rests on educating women and getting them into the labor market. Better education and job opportunities for Pakistani women are undoubtedly a great thing. However, this distinctly neoliberal strategy for economic development — expanding the pool of exploitable labor through women — does not say anything about who will pick up the unpaid domestic work left behind by working women. Nor does it specify when all this work will be done. 

Scholars have therefore argued that the world is facing a ‘crisis of care’, in which workers are squeezed from all sides in the service of the neoliberal capitalist economy. Under such contradictory pressures of paid work and unpaid care work, something ultimately has to give. And for many middle-class women in Lahore, this often ends up being the job that they originally hoped to keep. 

The labor market participation of women in Pakistan is currently among the lowest in the world — just 25% of women are employed. In urban areas, where most of the middle class lives, the percentage of women in employment is as low as 10%. However, there seems to be a carefully growing acceptance of women taking paid employment in the Pakistani middle classes, particularly before they marry and have children. It has become quite commonplace for middle-class women to have a job before they get married — and many of these women are determined to continue in their jobs after they get married. After years of neoliberalist policies in Pakistan, with rising prices and widespread privatization of healthcare and education, more families look for an extra income to aid upward mobility. This means that some families are willing to circumvent social conventions that demand that men provide for the family, while women stay home to take care of the children, the housework, and their in-laws. But even women whose mothers-in-law and husbands support, or even encourage, them to take employment often end up quitting their jobs. 

Tahmina, a doctor I interviewed, had a grueling schedule. She worked for five years with the support of her mother-in-law,  who took care of her three children in the mornings while Tahmina worked at her clinic. In the evenings, however, it was more complicated. Tahmina described her husband as “happy about the work, but not very supporting, not at nights. He really wouldn’t sacrifice his sleep.” She was therefore forced to carry her sleeping babies with her to the maternity ward in order to do her job, leaving them with the nurses while she was managing deliveries. Because the housework was also seen as her responsibility, Tahmina had no choice but to sacrifice her sleep in order to do both. “I don’t remember sleeping for more than 2-3 hours at a time during those years,” she told me, “whether it was day or night. I remember cooking even in the middle of the nights.” She still seemed tired when I met her, as if exhaustion had been baked into her bones. 

In her book, The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild discusses the lives of women in similar situations as Tahmina, arguing that they are essentially working double shifts. The first shift is their paid job, and the second shift is the unpaid work they do at home, often continuing until midnight or beyond. For Tahmina, however, the first and second shifts seemed to blend into one interminable, non-stop shift. She ended up exhausted, reminding me of the women Hochschild describes, who spoke about sleep the way hungry people speak about food. Many times, Tahmina had wanted to quit her job, so that she could more easily manage the work at home. Her in-laws and husband wanted her to continue, however, because her income paid for the children’s schooling and they claimed her hard-earned education might otherwise “go to waste.” In the end, it was the arrival of her fourth child that convinced them to give her a break. As Hochschild points out, the main reason why women have to spend their evenings or mornings working a second shift is because their husbands presume this work does not fall under their domain. This is related to the low value placed on women’s unpaid care work and housework, which is considered emasculating for men. With this work therefore placed entirely on women’s shoulders, it is no wonder that the ILO has called unpaid care work the main barrier to women’s labor market participation. 

Pakistani men’s failure to lighten a women’s burden and assume a fair share of the housework is often blamed on their long work hours and role as the primary breadwinners. This argument falls apart, however, when wage-earning women are asked to take on all the housework regardless of their working hours. As one 12-year-old girl pointed out during a classroom discussion at a Lahore school, “When men come home from work, they have the excuse that ‘We are tired,’ but when a woman tries to say that, all she gets is a scolding.” The truth is that a full day of work with the currently expected number of hours is exhausting for anyone — whether male or female — and that exhaustion is only compounded when adding cooking, dishwashing, laundry, children’s homework, and listening to gossip from a mother-in-law. Even in dual-earner households with an equitable distribution of the domestic labor, it is likely that neither parent will have much time to relax in the evening. This is because paid work continues to be structured as if all workers are men with wives at home to take care of the domestic work. 

This unpaid work is essential to maintaining the labor force. Yet, in our current capitalist economy, reproductive and domestic work are not recognized as important. As Nancy Fraser puts it, this “indicates something rotten not only in capitalism’s current, financialized form, but in capitalist society per se.” That is, the capitalist economy rests on the “super-exploitation” of women’s labor and cannot be maintained without the reproductive and domestic work that goes unrecognized within it. 

In Pakistan, the lack of recognition for domestic and care work is further evident in the meager paid leave provided to parents, as well as the lack of safe, reliable, and affordable childcare. Although Pakistani women are legally entitled to three months of maternity leave, many are lucky if they get even one – because the structure of the labor market is not currently built for workers with care duties. On the other hand, fathers usually get no parental leave at all, underscoring their distance from domestic work and childrearing. Many women also struggle to find suitable childcare if they take employment, forced to rely on the free labor of their mothers or mothers-in-law, as hired help and day care centers are considered unsafe.

Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of care. Although the national lockdown in Pakistan only spanned a month, from April to May 2020, schools have been regularly closed or repeatedly interrupted during the pandemic. In addition, while workers in white-collar jobs were able to work remotely from home, others whose businesses were shut down have been sitting at home without employment. From the conversations I had with middle-class women in Lahore, it is clear that having both children and men at home all day has significantly increased the burden of unpaid work for women. This has translated into more cleaning and tidying, cooking several times a day, attending to the demands of husbands, while also homeschooling or finding other activities to occupy children. These experiences are concordant with findings from the rest of the world, which show that COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns have increased the burden of  domestic work for most women around the world, including in Pakistan.

Women who had jobs before the pandemic – many of them teachers – have had to shift to working from home, while also managing the rapidly increasing amount of housework. In India, research shows that women working from home during the pandemic have struggled to do their job more than men, as their work tends to been seen as less important than men’s work. Women have for instance been compelled to participate in housework or to home school their children during their work hours, while men have been able to work more undisturbed. Simultaneously, women in Lahore say that employers have not been particularly understanding of their increased workload and conflicting demands during the pandemic, adding significant stress to women’s lives. 

Of course, one could argue that since most middle-class families in Pakistan employ some domestic help for housework, middle-class women have significantly less housework to do than those who cannot afford such help. In fact, this tends to be the solution offered by middle-class men to the problem of who will take care of the housework if their wives are employed outside the home: “We can hire a maid for that.” However, this is not a solution to the problem of the unrecognized domestic work, nor necessarily to the workload women face. First of all, hiring maids to take care of the housework means that the problem of exploiting women’s labor through double shifts has merely been shifted to a lower class of women. Additionally, in most middle-class households in Lahore, maids only do part of the housework — the dishes, cleaning, and chopping vegetables. The women of the household therefore still do the majority of the cooking, childcare, and caring for in-laws, as well as anything else not trusted to the hired help. Like in India, many households in Lahore have also let their help go during the pandemic. While this undoubtedly increased the financial stress on lower-class women, it also compounded the pressure on middle-class women. Now, they had to do the maid’s work in addition to having their normal responsibilities increased. Particularly for women with jobs, this has underscored how incompatible the worlds of domestic and paid work appear to be – at least in their current iteration. 

The masculine nature of the workplace and labor market, combined with the unpaid and largely unrecognized domestic work at home, therefore means that many women choose to opt out of the labor market. As Pamela Stone has argued, however, this should not actually be understood as a free choice. Rather, women are pushed out of the labor market because of the inhospitable conditions they find there. As a result, they lose opportunities to become economically independent, instead becoming even more dependent on their husbands. It also means that women lose opportunities for self-realization, or a way to escape the confines of the home and the routine drudgery of household chores – important motives for middle-class women to pursue paid employment. Thus, while many choose to quit the labor market in order to save themselves from stress and exhaustion, they may in the process submit themselves to other sources of discontent at home. 


The Lost Boys of Pakistan: Greece’s Child Refugees

Unaccompanied minors from Pakistan are increasingly arriving on Greek shores to precarious and uncertain futures


During the height of Greece’s refugee crisis in 2016, sixteen-year-old Shehzad* was locked in the unaccompanied children’s section of Moria refugee camp on Greece’s Lesvos island. Unlike many of the Syrian and Afghan children who fled their homes in search of safety, Shehzad had not arrived in Greece to escape war and violence. Shehzad had dreams of playing cricket for England. 

The teenager had run away from home and traveled over 5,000 kilometers with a smuggler after hearing stories from his friends in the city of Mandi Bahauddin in eastern Punjab province. Like him, they had left Pakistan and had invited Shehzad to join them in Europe. “I got wrapped up in plans with my friends back home,” said Shehzad with a twinge of regret. “Some of them were already in France.” 

Originally, Shehzad assumed he could stay in France for a short period before traveling to England, but his father said no. “He said I was his only child and he couldn’t let me go.”

A Pakistani teenager seeking asylum in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra
A Pakistani teenager seeking asylum in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra

Shehzad was nevertheless determined to travel to Europe, so he ran away. In Greece, Pakistani adolescents like Shehzad are the second-largest group of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, behind only Afghans. The majority of these boys are between 14 and 17 years old. Many Pakistani boys do not come from areas affected by political turmoil or violence. Like Shehzad, most come from cities and villages of Punjab, nestled in dense migrant networks that have developed over multiple generations.

Pakistani adolescents are the second-largest group of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Greece, behind only Afghans.

“These boys see how their relatives or their neighbors’ relatives who live in Europe send so much money back home (to Pakistan),” said Muhammad, who looks at child protection at the Network for Children’s Rights in Athens. “But things were different when those men traveled. Yes, they traveled illegally, but it was possible for them to obtain legal status in some European countries or to open up businesses and eventually achieve some level of economic success. That is really not possible anymore.”

For decades, Greece has played a major role as a host and transit country for Pakistani migrants in Europe. After the September 11 attacks heightened global airport security, Pakistanis unable to acquire a visa saw a new opportunity through over-land transcontinental smuggling routes across Balochistan, Iran and Turkey. Smugglers typically took migrants as far as Greece, where they attempted to repay smugglers’ fees by working in the agricultural fields or the black market. Previously, migrant youth entering the country undocumented were afforded several protections and rights under Greece’s 2001 Law on Aliens, but today this path is no longer available.

Asylum applications filed by Pakistanis in Greece are only accepted at a 2% rate

Instead, since the spike in irregular migration to Greece’s Aegean islands in 2015-2016, underaged boys who land on Greek shores are often immediately taken to migrant reception centers. These young migrants can only maintain a presence in Europe by applying for asylum. However, the likelihood of asylum success is dismal—asylum applications filed by Pakistanis in Greece are only accepted at a rate of 2.4%. Still, the sluggish processing rate can buy most Pakistani boys a few years of time, allowing them to remain in the country, albeit in a painful legal limbo.  

A Pakistani teenager in Greece. Photo by Divya Mishra.

“Danki Lagana”

“I believed what the agent (smuggler) said,” recalled Shehzad. “He said we would be traveling by car and that we might have to walk for two or three hours at a time. But we walked on foot for two or three days at a time, over mountains and across rivers, surviving only on biscuits and water. They even put us in the trunks of cars—once for a whole 24 hours.”

While Shehzad was surprised by how harrowing his journey to Greece was, many of his peers harbored a better idea of the road ahead of them. Among Pakistani teenagers, the journey to Europe is known as danki lagana, because “you walk along like a donkey. You walk for days and days,”  Shehzad explained.

The families of Pakistani child migrants are typically aware of the perils that lie along smugglers’ routes to Europe and are reluctant to let their children go. Yet, their families are unable to counter the lure of omnipresent smuggling agents and the stories of successful migrants with iPhones and new cars. Unlike adult asylum seekers, smugglers agree to take minors on the journey without advance payments, allowing boys to leave without their family’s support. Once they are in Iran or Turkey, however, the boys are held as hostages in musafirkhanas, or smugglers’ safehouses, at least until the families can raise enough money to pay the smuggler’s fees.

“My journey from Pakistan to Turkey was only eighteen days, but in Turkey, they held me for six months,” said Shehzad. Faced with a ransom, his father eventually relented and paid the sum of money demanded by smugglers.

“The smugglers know that the boys’ families have assets,” explained Muhammad. “At the very least, they own animals that they can sell.”

The cost of travelling undocumented from Pakistan to Greece can cost approximately 6,000 euros, portions of which leave Pakistan’s economy to pay smugglers in Iran and Turkey. It is not uncommon for families to go into debt  to cover smugglers’ fees, typically by borrowing money from friends and family and selling familial property or jewelry. 

“If you’re a parent and you find out your son is held hostage in another country, what else can you do?” said Muhammad. “Of course, you will sell everything.”

Even when their prospects in Europe seem bleak, most Pakistani boys refuse to return to their home country.

“Better to Go Home

Once unaccompanied Pakistani minors arrive in Greece, they quickly face pressure to earn an income to help pay back the costs of their journey, chase dreams of economic success, or simply to survive. However, child labor is a crime in Greece, so the only places for these adolescent boys to work are informal sectors, such as agriculture, or in black market economies selling illicit drugs.

“I had never done farm labor before,” said 17-year-old Imran*, also from Pakistan’s Punjab province. “But I had nothing to eat, nowhere to live. A Bangladeshi man in Athens offered me a job selling untaxed cigarettes (do number cigarette), but I don’t smoke, so I didn’t take that job. That’s why I came to the strawberry farm.”

Labor managers on Greek farms hire undocumented migrant labor at exploitative rates, deducting costs of food and housing from workers’ pay, or withholding weeks of paychecks altogether.

Yet, meager pay and backbreaking labor are not the only things unaccompanied children are exposed to on Greek farms.

“Of course there is sexual exploitation on the farms,” said Muhammad. His clients included Pakistani minors who had run away from agricultural jobs. “You have minors living in packed sheds with twenty, thirty adult men. Labor contractors sometimes keep a child for themselves, usually the youngest. The boys don’t dare to tell their families about it. And when the farm laborers are drinking and doing other drugs, the boys do it too. What else can they do? They have nowhere else to go.”

Although there are children’s shelters available for unaccompanied minors in Greece, they only have enough capacity for roughly half of the 4,000 or so unaccompanied minors who need assistance each month, leading to long wait lists. Many Pakistani boys run away from shelters to find work, and even those who stay remain segregated from Greek society.

“Social workers are overworked, and there is no one to teach these kids technical skills or the Greek language,” Muhammad said. “Even after they turn 18, they are not able to participate in the Greek economy.”

The only option available to these boys, even in early adulthood, is to work in immigrant-dominated agricultural fields or the drug or sex trade, where they face a grave risk of exploitation.

Even when their prospects in Europe seem bleak, most Pakistani boys refuse to return to their home country.

“What will I do if I go back?” said Imran. “I have not finished school, I won’t be able to get a job. Right now, work is difficult, but I am able to help pay for my sister’s wedding.”

Too ashamed to return home empty-handed and unsure of how to start a new life if they were to return, Pakistani youth continue to toil in Greece, facing homelessness, sexual and labor exploitation, and social isolation. The journeys also exert a heavy toll on their mental health. Depression and anxiety are prevalent among unaccompanied migrant boys, and self-harm behaviors are commonplace. Many boys self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which are easily available in Athens. 

The long-term consequences are dire, yielding poor outcomes in adulthood the longer they face social isolation and mental distress. The longer unaccompanied migrant children remain homeless, trapped in musafirkhanas, or otherwise cut off from mainstream society, the more they miss out on crucial developmental and learning experiences. This ultimately makes it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society in adulthood, and destines them to a future of suffering as part of Europe’s undocumented underclass.  

“For many of them, it would be better to return home,” said Muhammad. “But they stay on in the hope that something will change.”

*Note: All names of children have been changed to protect their identity.

Divya Mishra, PhD is a graduate from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and University of Pennsylvania. She examined the migration experiences of unaccompanied children in Greece for her doctoral dissertation and as a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellow. 

Inclusivity in Pakistan’s Urban Feminist Movement: A Call for Reflection

Gulrukhsar Mujahid

While inclusivity as a principle would translate into inclusion of all marginalised voices within the feminist movement, it must also mean recognition of the hierarchy that exists amongst various forms of oppression. We are not all oppressed the same way nor to the same extent, producing varying consequences and costs for each one of us. In other words, we live subjective lives while experiencing objective conditions. For instance, when performative resistance translates into marches and protests, analysing the consequences attached to groups/individuals involved can be revealing. For some, protesting might just mean giving up a day of one’s life for the said cause likely resulting in societal backlash or censorship. For others and their families, dissenting results in arrests, the threat of physical violence and disappearances.  All are expressions of resistance with varying consequences. There is a stark difference amongst them, as they exist along a spectrum.

However, this understanding must not translate into embracing the futile logic of competition amongst various forms of oppressions and therefore amongst the oppressed, but instead build an authentic understanding of people’s lived experiences in order to struggle and strategise accordingly. When political marginals of differing identities unite under the same banner, these distinctions matter. A lack of recognition leads to misplaced priorities, alienation and a lost opportunity at realising the revolutionary potential residing in the voices, agency and struggles of working class women, as well as women from oppressed nations and religious minorities.

Where do these countless possibilities for revolutionary solidarity reside? They reside in Farzana Majeed, Sammi Baloch and many other Baloch women who marched for 102 days for their missing male family members, forcefully disappeared by the known ‘unknowns’. We fail to speak enough or raise our voices enough for and with them. They’re our living, marching warriors left unheard—who don’t want medals but just want their family members back home, irrespective of their long political struggle—and perhaps unfortunately will be left unheard, if meaningful solidarity and an understanding of their lived reality is not realised. Censorship imposed on Baloch women activists by the ill-meaning state should not be left at the periphery in well-meaning rights movements. 

The opportunity for solidarity also resides in deepening our understanding of the life and death of Qandeel Baloch, who lost her life in the name of honour. We lost her, not only because of her scorned upon liberal lifestyle, but also due to her objective class position in society. Qandeel’s death and many other honour killings reflect a patriarchal code of ‘honour’, but should also be seen within the spectrum of class, as lack of exposure, resources and social capital impeded her and many others from navigating a heavily chained capitalist-patriarchal society as a ‘liberated’ individual. Can we all ever be truly liberated in a capitalist-patriarchy through everyday acts of liberation under conditions of disproportionate backlash and consequences for gendered and classed bodies? The brother who killed Qandeel is to be damned as a patriarchal product, but so too is the overarching systemic construct that forces men to look towards women for honour, who are considered devoid of an iota of respect that could be harnessed economically and socially. So let’s also unpack honour collectively and see what it denotes and why it means different things to different individuals falling in varying positions along the class spectrum.

Possibilities for meaningful, revolutionary solidarity also resided in Badrunnisa, a landless farmer from Okara, a member of the Thaapa collective. She raises a piece of wood used to wash clothes (a thaapa) alongside other women in the collective while protesting. She had nine registered cases in her name besides several attempts of arrest. Badrunnisa and many others are fighting against the contract system introduced by the military regime in 2003, which takes away rightful ownership by farmers to land and agriculture. But do we hear enough about her and her comrades at Anjuman-e-Mazareen Punjab in the mainstream rights discourse? Are there women championed as torch bearers of feminist resistance to the extent matching the threat of violence and coercion they have faced directly from the state? Is a movement inclusive enough when it fails to recognise these women and keep their struggle at the forefront of a feminist movement?

There are countless other examples of kill-and-dump cases of women in Waziristan, women in Badin hit worst by the climate crisis, and those living in the periphery of the cities; the Afghan migrants, Bihari and Bengali women without NICs in Karachi, caught beyond the formal law’s precincts, whose problems aren’t addressed with valour and seriousness. There is a dialectical relationship between the emancipation of women at the periphery and that of women at the centre— without the emancipation of one the emancipation of the other is unrealised and incomplete.

A feminist united front that struggles for the ethnic or religiously oppressed and working class women, while explicitly recognising the gross imbalance in women’s struggles due to their inherited and immobile socio-economic position in society, is the path toward the realisation of revolutionary potential. Only then can we be truly representative and address the crises in the lived experiences or people in the margins with the seriousness required.

Some voices need a larger base and support in struggle because their struggle and oppression, by default, puts them in far more precarious positions than what others could even imagine.

The burden of oppression and erasure of these voices mainly lies with the powers that be, the perpetrators of these forms of brutality and structures that perpetuate them. However, those championing feminist consciousness and praxis must explicitly recognise the limitations of their resistance in the service of political honesty and concern for consequential tokenism of those in the margins, if the immensely disproportionate effects of the oppression many face aren’t embraced for what they are.

To each meaningful criticism, one must not only present the manifesto or written agenda as a rebuttal, but perhaps a rigorous reflection of how it manifests itself in praxis. Therein lies the much called on revolutionary potential of a movement. All humans are not equal, therefore, all suffering and pain resulting from overlapping oppressions and exploitations are not equal; we live unequal lives each breathing day of our existence.

Gulrukhsar Mujahid is associated with Women Democratic Front and currently works as Editor, Higher Education and Academia at Oxford University Press (OUP). She tweets at @Gulrukhsar

Covid-19, Global Left and Politics in Pakistan

Tariq Ali

Ammar Ali Jan, Zahid Ali and Ziyad Faisal sat down with political activist, writer and public intellectual Tariq Ali for the Left-wing Youtube show The Muqaddimah. A number of topics came under discussion – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the new Left emerging in Pakistan, to the crisis of capitalism. PLR is reproducing an extract of this conversation.

Transcribed by: Zaighum Abbas and Raza Gillani

Edited by: Aima Khosa 

Muqaddimah Interviewer (MI): How can we analyse the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a global emergency in economic and political terms?

Tariq Ali (TA): The first question we must ask is: why has this particular epidemic received so much attention across the globe? There is only one reason for this: the fact that it has affected Europe. Had it remained in China, Asia, or Africa, then the hysteria around it would not have been more than that caused by the SARS pandemic. People forget that for a number of countries in Africa, the malaria pandemic is far deadlier than COVID-19. This hysteria exists because the virus has wounded Europe and the USA. Even the work that we have been doing is merely our attempt to copy them.

Such epidemics have broken out in the past and this will eventually die down, that much I am sure about. In Wuhan, where all of this started, the authorities have managed to take control. We have to see Wuhan as the arc of the future.

But, for us in Pakistan, doing the same is difficult because for the last 25 years, no attention has been given to building state infrastructure. Everything has been privatised and only those who can afford private healthcare are safe. Exceptional voluntary work is always carried out by doctors, but the state is doing absolutely nothing. I have been saying this since long, that we have had so many opportunities since Bhutto’s era. Something had to be done about the poor!

I used to say this whenever I met Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto that revolution might be difficult for you to bring, but you still must do something. “What should we do?” Benazir Bhutto once asked me. “Let me tell you what to do,” I said. “Establish a clinic in every village and five or six state-of-the-art hospitals in every city. The government should allocate money for them. Spend on education, specifically education for girls. No one will stop you from doing this and if anyone tries, you should come on television and tell people the truth.”

“Who will do this?” she asked.

“This is your government! You should be doing this,” I replied

“You should come and do this,” she said.

“How can I do this?” I answered. “I am just an individual. This is something for the state to do.”

But they could never do anything. There was never any will.

So, the political lessons from this pandemic are clear. Private enterprise, or private healthcare structures, cannot deal with such a pandemic. State intervention and national healthcare is of prime importance if we are to save people’s lives.

MI: How do you see the COVID-19 situation in Britain, especially after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken to intensive care? What is the situation of the NHS and the healthcare systems of the UK and the US?

TA: In Britain, the NHS has been continuously downgraded over the last 20-25 years. Hospital beds were reduced and spending was cute down. The main policy for Britain towards the NHS, which started under Blair’s Labour government and since carried on, is to introduce Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) for the NHS. Many had warned them that if PFIs were introduced, people would spend their lives paying their interests, which turned out to be true.

This is why the British healthcare system was not prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. The NHS hospitals did not even have protection kits or masks. Protective equipment was then imported from China and Cuba. As we speak, the first thing they should be doing is to nationalise all private hospitals. They could have given them some compensation if they wanted to, but they had to take control of all hospitals. On the contrary, thousands of pounds are being given to private hospitals every day. The government had initially thought that this virus would run its course and there was no need for mass testing. They just wanted to compete with Germany.

The reason why Germany saw a low infection and mortality rate is not because they are healthier than others. My comrades in Germany tell me that the reason behind a relatively safer situation is because they have a high number of nurses and because of that, they are able to keep people in homes and send nurses to test them there. Only in severe cases are people brought in hospitals and people with mild symptoms are being treated at their homes. This is something that France is beginning to do, but Italy and Britain have not been able to do this and, therefore, they are suffering.

In the USA, the situation mirrors hell. Medicines are expensive and if you are not insured, you are almost doomed to die at home. This is the reality for many immigrants. Trump, however, lives in his own imaginary world – one that is filled with complex speculations. You could not have a worse president to deal with such a crisis. Some people say that the USA is eventually getting what it deserved, but I think that it is important to recognise that such pandemics not only affect the state, but a lot of poor people in the USA as well. We have to care about them and support them. I get calls from friends in New York, who tell me that the situation is very bleak.

MI: How do you see the recent defeats of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders after having created hope of an alternative? Would it not have been better to have people like Sanders and Corbyn at the helm in such times?

TA: It is important to recognise how American politics works. There are only two parties which are not very different from each other, even under Trump. Their policies are directed towards supporting the Wall Street and its bankers, owners of hedge funds and basically supporting capital. They cannot look beyond it. There can be multiple reasons behind this, but one fundamental reason is that people do not see any alternative to this reality.

Cuba is a small island, but they have hundreds of thousands of doctors. Their doctors go to Africa for free and their arrival in Italy made a big impact. People wonder if a small island like Cuba can do such a thing, why can’t their country? The USA is the world’s largest imperialist country. They have military bases across the globe. Earlier their power was based on their military, but now they use economic sanctions to exercise it. They have sanctioned Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba just to keep their power. Their policies and politics are determined by their imperialism and their internal policy is also directed at protecting billionaires. This is why what Sanders says – controlling corporations, having a state-led single payer healthcare system – haunts them: if the USA has a single payer healthcare system today, the influence and power of insurance companies would go down. The USA’s health spending is higher than Europe, but it never goes to the people, it only goes to insurance companies.

We need a mass movement to challenge this power. There was a mass campaign against Bernie, who should have been the candidate. If Biden runs, he will lose to Trump, surely. But they even then chose Biden because for them, Trump’s victory is still better than having someone like Bernie in power. This is the politics of the Democratic Party.

MI: You talked about China and described Wuhan to be the arc of the future. Many western analysts are now wary of the authoritarianism that will eventually rise as a result of this pandemic, especially in China. How do you see this perspective?

TA: I regularly read their essays in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other American newspapers. I think they have panicked. They have panicked because they feel that China is apparently looking better than them. If China were the USA’s satellite state, then such propaganda wouldn’t have been carried out against them. It is true that China has a specific form of authoritarianism and there are a lot of contradictions in their structure and politics, but this is not about authoritarianism. This is about state institutions, about building a large hospital in two weeks in Wuhan. If China can do it, can we Pakistanis or Indians not do it? We can. But for that, we need a strong state which can take the initiative. We can, of course, talk about a lot of other harms that such a power generates, but in terms of medicine, it is extraordinary. This is why they’re being attacked.

If there were more accountability in their system, if it was more flexible and open to people’s concerns, they would have done better and taken care of the virus even earlier than that. It is not that they’ve done it because they’re authoritarian, but I see that, on the contrary, authoritarianism is their biggest hurdle. If there were people’s councils and democratic accountability, they could have stopped the virus before.

After 9/11, in the USA and in Europe, laws have been passed which allow agencies to pick up a person from the streets and keep them without trial. Obama signed the clause which allows the president to authorise the execution of a citizen deemed a threat to national security, within the USA or outside. You know how national security threats are formed.

MI: Many are writing that we cannot go back to the world before COVID-19 and that we will see a new world after this pandemic ends. How do you such a forecast? Also, what do you think about state intervention and its use to fight such pandemics?

TA: I think that both the conservative and social democratic parties of today have very short memories. One central characteristic of neoliberalism is that they have shortened the lifespan of historical memories.

They will use these conditions and anti-democratic laws. They might keep some of them out but these laws will surely be used in the future to repress mass mobilisations. Britain has a long history of controlling and managing crowds, masses and newspapers. News management, in this country, is an art form. We must never think that newspapers were free in this country, ever. They might have been freer than Pakistan, but there was always control. In propaganda, they have no match. Look at BBC – their propaganda is now extremely open. There was a time when you could see more news on a Pakistani news outlet here than in BBC because of its state control and propaganda.

So, anti-democratic measures and post 9/11 laws will be used for sure against people in the future and we have to struggle against that. It is a peculiar characteristic of capitalist countries that they never let go of these laws once they are passed. Even if they put them down for a time, they stop using them but they never completely wipe them out, because they want to keep them so that they can use them in the future. Like the use of Section 144 in Lahore, in Delhi. It is an out-dated colonial law, but it is still being used.

It is also important to mention here that their system rests on a very narrow social basis. What we called the industrial bourgeoisie, in Marx’s time and afterwards, have been almost completely wiped out. For neoliberalism to flourish, they allowed China to retain and continue to industrialise until it became a giant. They used China against Russia in order to break it up. Now, they have panicked from the large support they had given to China and they are trying to stop it. But their own system is resting on a very narrow base, socially. This is why they are always wary of any mishaps or eruptions. They see any form of alternative and they try to put it down as fast as they can. Even people like Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist social democratic, who was not even as big a force in terms of threatening their structures, brought out the worst in them. Large campaigns were carried out against him, at every level of government and even within the Labour Party.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour party leader, I remember watching breakfast news that day. For the first time ever, I saw the UK chief of army staff on TV. The BBC interviewer asked him extraordinarily, “What does the army think of Corbyn’s election?” Who even thinks of such a question? BBC.

The general responded that there was a lot of panic in the army about the effect Corbyn’s election could have on the country’s security. “I would not rule out mutinies in the army,” he said. This is the mother of democracy!

Such a thing is commonplace in Pakistan, but here in Britain, the military does not involve itself in politics. Corbyn even induced the military to come out.

MI: A new Left is emerging in Pakistan. People usually discredit them by using examples of places like Venezuela where they say the Left has failed the people. How do you see the experience of Latin America? What lessons should we should learn from it?

TA: In 1999, Hugo Chavez was elected for the first time as the president of Venezuela. Here, using the word ‘elected’ is extremely important, since all of Latin America’s new wave was centred on elections – every single one of them. It had its own strengths, in terms of legitimacy, but it also had a weakness.

I met Chavez quite a few times and talked to him about philosophy, politics and economics. He used to say, “We are seeing that nationalising every single thing leads us nowhere. We have to stop nationalising small scale industries.” He also used to say, “We cannot isolate ourselves, especially after witnessing what happened to Cuba during its isolation.” His plan was to have three or four countries in Latin America joining hands to resist the USA. And this was already beginning to happen, for example, in Bolivia. Magazines like The Economist or The Financial Times panicked after seeing this. They used to say that Latin America had two models; the Chavez model and the one led by Lula in Brazil, which was initially a very weak neoliberal sort of a government. 

Let me tell you an interesting event about Venezuela. From the start, the opposition parties in Venezuela were extremely vicious and even racist. I accompanied Perry Anderson, Susan, and Robin Blackman as part of a delegation of the New Left Review in Venezuela. We met a Left intellectual. He asked us why we had gone there, since he felt Chavez had nothing to do with the Left. He said that his mother had warned him to never trust the Zambos, which is a race with both indigenous and slave blood. Chavez was a Zambo. I lambasted him for saying that, and he had nothing to say in response. Even Chavez told me that most of the Venezuelan Left intelligentsia didn’t back them. We could go there to talk and support him, but in terms of economics, there were issues. But till the day he died, Chavez was firm in his support for the poor, regardless of the issues and consequences. Thousands of Venezuelans had gone to Cuba to become doctors and get trained in medicine. 

It was no wonder that Americans opposed him and continued to fight him till the end. They backed strikes of elite labourers of the oil industry who had been under the control of the previous regime. They opposed his constitution but used it to support a referendum against him when he was a sitting president. 

I once asked Chavez what was the toughest challenge he had faced. He said that the time when white colour unions went against him and doctors, oil workers and engineers refused to work. This was the toughest moment for him as he feared that the USA might be able to put his regime down by backing this opposition. 

He also recalled the time when he went out with one of his bodyguards and saw the enormous support he had on the streets. People came to greet him, shake his hands and hug him. Even gang leaders came up to him and told him that the supply of beer had been halted. “We will stop having beer but we will continue to fight them, no matter what!” they said to him. A woman held his hand and took him to her home. The house had two rooms; they slept in one and cooked in the other. The woman told him that they don’t have a sofa in their room because they had burnt its wood to cook food. She said to him, “Tomorrow we will burn the bed to cook because we have complete faith that you will not let them win.” Chavez said that these events gave him the resolve to keep on fighting despite the odds against him. 

Chavez also remembered that during the doctors’ strike, when he was extremely worried, Castro called him from Cuba. When Chavez expressed his concerns about people starting to die due to the doctors’ strike, Cuba sent as many as 10,000 doctors within a week, along with large tents, medical equipment and medicine. They established clinics and medical centres in the poorest towns, where there were no doctors present before. 

When the Americans saw this, they said that they weren’t doctors – they were terrorists! People responded by saying that if they were terrorists, they demanded more terrorists to be sent to them as their lives were being saved! Even poor supporters of right wing parties opposed terming them as terrorists.

I feared for Chavez’s life after the coup d’état in 2002. I feared that they would do with him what they did to Che Guevara. We were fortunate that it didn’t happen because even the army had an internal disagreement and soldiers refused to support the new president because they had no voice in electing him. They even warned their superiors that a mutiny will be on the cards if he becomes the president.

People from Caracas came down and surrounded the Miraflores Palace while chanting “Chavez is ours!” A general asked the band at the Miraflores to play the national anthem in honour of the new president. One of the members of band asked who this new president was and why hadn’t he been chosen through an election. The general responded by telling him to just obey orders. An 18-year-old farmer boy, who played the trumpet beautifully, said to the general that this answer was unsatisfactory. When the general shouted and ordered them to obey for the third time, the boy put down his trumpet and said, “You look quite passionate, perhaps you should play it for him.” 

It was this level of political consciousness that gave Chavez the courage to fight. It was basically through a combination of the poor and the soldiers that Chavez came back.

In terms of economics, I think they made a few mistakes and corruption had also gone too high. In Maduro’s time, they took the decision of paying the army more to maintain their loyalties. This wasn’t such a bad line of thought since it helped them keep the Americans away after generals refused to support the Americans because their own government had been giving them enough. But this policy allowed the army to carry out large scale corruption, which was a big price to pay. They stole money, made business and caused a lot of demoralisation. 

I don’t say now that Venezuela is a model. It would be wrong. But I think it is very important to take lessons from it. 

To all the people who say to me that socialism or communism has failed, I usually respond by saying that what you call socialism, or communism, has failed only once. But capitalism has failed some fifty times. So we will rise again and this system will bounce back. I don’t know when, but it will.

MI: A lot of literature is being produced now about the student movement in Pakistan in 1968, which acted as a catalyst in the larger movement against Ayub Khan. How do you remember the workers movement of that era and what do you think we can learn from the experiences from 1968?

TA: It was a unique era – the 1960s and 1970s. Not just in Europe but in Pakistan as well. I have written and talked about it a lot because people tend to forget the Pakistani movement when remembering the 1960s. Although, if we look at it, we only had one victory in bringing down a dictatorship and that was in Pakistan. It couldn’t happen in Mexico, they were close in France, but it didn’t happen. 

It was a very interesting time. On one hand celebrations of Ayub’s ten golden years were going on. We used to read Jalib’s poetry which used to criticise those celebrations. Jalib reflected the mood, especially after China lent support to Ayub for their own interests against India – with words like cheen apna yaar hai, us pe jaan-nisar hai, par vahan hai jo nizam, us taraf na jaiyo, us ko duur se salaam. So the mood of the movement was different. People wanted him [General Ayub Khan] to go, 10 years were more than enough for them.

It is also important to remember that in those years, even though the levels of oppression weren’t as high as Zia’s period, it was brutal nonetheless. You could also say that even though liberals don’t like it, but it is the truth: that he was a secular dictator. He had nothing to do with religion. He used to come down on Jamaat-e-Islami hard when they menaced. His Family Laws Ordinance was very progressive, even more than India’s, with women’s right to divorce, etcetera. Having said this, there was a lot of violence against the Left, trade unions and students. People died less, but there were a lot of repression and arrests. Since repression was continuous, the 10-year celebrations aroused hatred among people, especially students. In Dawn’s celebration edition, there were more than 40 photographs of Ayub which enraged the students.

It started off with a very small event. Some students from Rawalpindi went to Landi Kotal to buy some things from the black market. On their way back, they were stopped by the police, their car was searched, they were arrested and beaten up at the police station. The next day, Raja Anwar called a meeting at Gordon College Rawalpindi and the whole college came out in their support. When they were met with violence, students from other colleges came out. This was the trigger. Who would’ve imagined that the country would light up from a simple smuggling charge?

The government also underestimated the situation. The fire spread from Rawalpindi, which we termed as the least political city, to Karachi, Peshawar, Sahiwal, Lyallpur, Sheikhupura and Lahore. In three weeks, it became a nationwide movement. Then it spread to Dhaka, Chittagong, and in East Pakistan. This was the moment when Pakistan was unified in the truest sense; when people from below united across the 1,000 miles-long divide. When a student was beaten up or killed in Karachi or Lahore, women in Dhaka used to march in rallies barefoot in white saris. 

Then, slowly, workers also joined the movement. But it is important to remember that mobilisation in peasants was not very high, and they never came out in good numbers. Organisation in farmers increased after the movement, not during it. The movement was largely urban. Workers came out and so did the Railway Workers Union, which had a strong political history and organisation under Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim’s leadership from even before the Partition. Women, sex workers, lawyers and junior civil servants also came out. There was also some disgruntlement in the ranks of the army as well, where junior soldiers refused to open fire. The unity was simply outstanding. We must recognise that this wasn’t just class solidarity. Of course, there was a good amount of that, especially after the workers came out, but this was a movement which was initiated by students and eventually it captured the whole of society. 

It must be remembered that in any revolutionary movement institutions emerge which do not possess power themselves, but they challenge the structures of power – such as the relationship of the party and Soviets following the Russian Revolution, which we tend to forget. It was after the Bolsheviks had won the majority in Moscow and Petrograd Soviets and defeated the moderates that they decided that it was time for insurrection. In Pakistan, there were no Soviets, or something similar, because no effort was made for it. The closest we had for Soviets were street demonstrations, which have their own limitations. We could not make these alternative institutions of power. 

Resultantly, the state made Ayub resign and announce elections. From those elections came large political parties – Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Mujibur Rehman’s National Awami League which came out with its six points for regional autonomy. The Maoist Left, however, in both west and the east, failed to support the movement.

I asked Maulana Bhashani why they had not supported the movement. He used to take me to Kissan meetings in Bengal. I told him that because of his position, Awami League had formed hegemony in East Pakistan. He responded that he had met Zhou Enlai during his visit to China who had assured him that China would support Pakistan since it was an anti-imperialist country and that they would support the current regime to their full potential. 

I told him that this was a lie, and that he should have known that as opposed to being anti-imperialist, Pakistan and the current regime were basically owned by America. Pakistan and China are friends only because of their own interests with respect to India, but I told Bhashani that he shouldn’t have listened to the Chinese. 

The situation in the western part was similar. The Maoist faction of the National Awami Party, people like CR Aslam, did the same. They didn’t support the movement and, therefore, the presence of the Left was minute. This is why the PPP gained support. Left wing students joined the PPP in large numbers. I remember that Bhutto came to London with JA Rahim and called me. I went to him and he gave me the party’s manifesto which Rahim had written. He asked me to read it, which I did, and then told me that they wanted me to become a founding member of the PPP. 

I politely declined and said that this was not my manifesto, as I was a socialist revolutionary. I told him that he was making a mistake by adding religion to this manifesto because the National Awami Party had taught us that not only was it necessary to keep religion out of politics, it was doable us well. I told him that he was taking on a fight that we could not win. 

Bhutto had actually played an integral role in the movement as well. He was there on the streets, he made speeches everywhere and went to jail as well. He knew that jail had in-house tape recordings, of which he took great advantage. When his lawyer Mehmood Kasuri used to go interview him, he would say rhetorical things because he knew that he was being heard and recorded. 

I remember in one instance when he bashed the appointment of General Musa Khan as the governor of West Pakistan. He said that when he would win over power, he would “make him wear a gharara and make him dance on the streets!” It was due to such actions that he gained a lot of support. The entire base of PPP in its formative years were radical students.

MI: Bhutto generally stands for socialism in Pakistan. Other than the fact that the PPP was not secular, what do you think should be the Left’s criticism of the party’s manifesto?

TA: Some things in that manifesto would have surely taken Pakistan forward, as it was actually progressive. One main thing which was mentioned in the manifesto – but very poorly – was land reform. It was in the 1970 elections that we witnessed for the first time that peasant consciousness had drastically increased. PPP’s candidates had defeated landlords in many areas and we used to joke that even a dog with PPP’s colours would defeat any feudal. They should have introduced radical land reforms at that time, since the situation of peasants was extremely devastating, especially in Sindh where feudalism resembled old-age slavery. I think that Bhutto couldn’t entirely move past his Sindhi landlord mentality because many feudals from Sindh joined the party after his victory. 

This is how the cycle repeats itself in Pakistan. There is a specific layer of the rich who change their party allegiances as the governments change. Same happened with the PTI, which aroused hopes of modernity in students, but eventually fell victim to the same cycle. So, in a way, PPP started that cycle, which was initiated in Sindh but soon spread to the Punjab as well. Big feudals of Multan joined the party as they realised that they had to go with him. 

I must acknowledge here that PPP’s victory in elections greatly affected and increased the consciousness of the people. It is a fact that land evictions were completely halted in PPP’s government. 

However, when farmers used to visit Bhutto after he won, they were made to wait outside for a good amount of time, which is a way of showing who was truly powerful. Yet, when Bhutto finally did meet them and listened to their various concerns, he would concede that he had done nothing about their issues and used to ask them if they had ever had a leader who talked to them about their concerns the way he did. All farmers would say that they hadn’t. And that was all.

The most important thing to remember is that for the first time in Pakistan’s movement, a political organisation and its leadership got a chance to implement large scale reforms. I won’t say revolution, because they never believed in revolution to begin with. But they had the opportunity to introduce large social and economic reforms. They could have confronted large industries and families and even the army, especially after the defeat in Bangladesh. The army could have been reformed and cut down to size. Generals used to fear Bhutto. 

What Bhutto did was to say that he would address soldiers every week, which was complete vanity. Even the generals felt that though he could talk to the soldiers, the army would still be run by them. When they got a hold of themselves, they stopped those addresses, even during the time when he was prime minister…but Bhutto was always more consumed in the politics of which general was with him, and which one was against him.

When I visited Pakistan in January 1977, he misbehaved with me. When I was finally able to come back after that visit, I was invited to a debate at the Oxford Union. Benazir was the union’s president at that time. Prior to the debate, Bhutto ringed Benazir up and asked her why she had invited one of his enemies to the debate. He also asked her to find out what I thought about the situation back at home, as I had just come back. 

When Benazir asked me, I told her that I was pretty clear that a coup d’état was being prepared against him and it was only a matter of months. I told her that there had been assassinations attempts as well, to which she said that they knew that it was going to happen, especially seeing Kennedy’s fate. But her response also reeked of arrogance. She said that they weren’t worried about any coup because the generals were “in their pockets.” I asked her to tell him, even quote me, that in Pakistan, no general is in the pocket of any politician and if this lesson has not yet been learnt, only God knows what will happen.

And this is what happened. General Ziaul Haq was a master of flattery. When Bhutto used to walk into the room, and Zia had been smoking, he would immediately put the cigarette away and stand in his honour. When Bhutto visited Multan, where Zia had been the Corps Commander, he ordered soldiers to put down their uniforms and welcome Bhutto as civilians. This was why Bhutto made him the chief while five generals were over him in the pecking order. He thought that Zia was one of his own.

MI: You spoke about class in the context of the 1968 movement. How do you analyse the rise of the PTI in recent times? What classes do you think have played a role in its rise to power? How do you characterise the PTI’s politics in general?

TA: First, I want to say with full disclosure that I have known Imran for a very long time. We used to meet when he was a cricketer. I was quite fond of him, if I speak with honesty. Once he called me for lunch before he retired. I went and he said he had an important question to ask. “You will continue to do what you do – write books – but us sportsmen have a very short lives in our careers. So, what should I do after retirement?” 

I responded that there is something that is not there in Pakistan but very much needed. “We need a national film institute through which we invite people from all over the world to train us how to make movies – this is how the art film industry has grown in India. Even though we cannot compete with Bollywood, we still need to develop this industry.”

He said that I was right, but what was in there for him to do? I said, “Become an actor.” 

He said he could not act. “But that’s not a disqualification!” I said. “Look at Amitabh Bachchan. Who says that he is an actor?” 

He thought I was making fun of him, but I was serious. Then I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to join politics.”

I warned him that Pakistani politics was a dirty world, but he said wanted to bring change in our society. He spoke like a liberal. He told me his plans about the cancer hospital. I eventually said to him that if that’s what he wants, he can surely give it a go.

When the PTI was founded, this was his mood. He just wanted to modernise the country…but ideas like socialism were too far from him. He attracted support from a particular social layer in universities and from largely well-off middle class families. People liked his dynamism and the fact that their generation knew who he was. 

People were hopeful and so was I, because I truly felt that it was extremely important to eliminate dynastic parties in Pakistan, both the Sharifs and the Bhuttos. I thought of them as really unhealthy to our democratic social order. 

So I thought that the PTI might modernise and eventually rid us of these families. But that didn’t happen and it couldn’t have happened. Because those who run politics – the little social layer of the rich – (like Jehangir Tareen and his ilk) joined the party and eventually started to do all that they used to do in Sharifs’ time. 

A direct consequence of this is that hatred for such politics will emerge very quickly. People will grow tired of them. We, therefore, need a movement-party, not in the traditional sense but one that can make people believe in an alternative.

This is why I always say that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is a great and noble development. Pashtuns have been living in constant war for over 40 years. The oppression against them has been devastating. This movement is a big development…we cannot repeat the same strategy again and again, but this is how the work is done and movements are run. 

As for the PTI, they’re done. The chief minister they have appointed in the Punjab is completely silly and witless. Who takes him seriously? A donkey could have been better in his place. And this is not even a joke. 

During Zia’s era, an activist wrote Zia’s name on some donkeys and the donkeys were arrested by authorities. It is an actually true event!

MI: Young people are now becoming interested in Leftist ideas. How do you see this new youth as a part of the global discontent? What is your message to them?

TA: I tell them two things: first, that whatever is happening in Pakistan is not the Left’s fault. Left was never strong enough to even make those mistakes. Nawaz Sharif’s party was formed by the army to challenge the PPP and Bhutto. PPP has degenerated to an extent that the only thing they can do now is to make money. Now that the people see what is happening to the PTI, they tell me that they feel sorrow. They say that they thought that a new government might just come and change things around by ending corruption. But the truth is that they have declared that only the corruption carried out outside this party will be prosecuted. 

Hopelessness is like a virus because it makes you passive. It is very important to keep hope alive, even if on a low level and to start working, regardless of how small the scale is. 

Once I went to Cairo, a year after the Iraq War. Muslim Brotherhood was banned but was in opposition. I went to my Marxist friends and told them that I wanted to meet them no matter what. I went to a health clinic whose owner was a leader of the Brotherhood. He knew of me and decided to meet me. 

I asked him that Iraq was facing war, Palestinians were being wiped out but you do nothing. You can do something by taking Islam’s name! 

He told me that hell would break loose if America takes a step forward. I asked him how his party was able to form such a strong base. It was then that he became interesting. He said that in the last 25 years, since this neoliberalism came to their land, they had started to go to poor neighbourhoods and began building health clinics there. They gave free medical advice as well as medicine. He said that this is something they were not able to do in Nasser’s time. It is due to this work that the doctors’ union is theirs today. The Jamaat-e-Islami tried to do the same in Pakistan on a very small scale. 

I think that such tactics are very important for the Left to establish contacts. A lot of Pakistani doctors go abroad for work. More than 2 million Pakistani doctors are working in the USA. We have to work with political education. This is one thing to be done. 

Secondly, it is extremely unfortunate that the new generation of the Left is not passionate about reading. They’re so used to social networking that it has become a substitute to books. Therefore, it is very important, even for movements like PTM that they read, and they read together. We have to inculcate in the newer generation that reading is necessary not only for our careers but for us to understand our history, our politics, and our economy. 

How is Lenin Relevant for Politics in Pakistan Today?


Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

Introducing Lenin

The untimely crisis of COVID-19 has melted away political, theoretical and ideological certainties held by many. Its sudden eruption has punctured a hole in existing knowledge revealing the vulnerable void upon which social, economic and political life is built. At a moment in which the coordinates of life itself are disrupted, how do we posit the relevance of Lenin, a political leader often accused of being the architect of a rigid model of politics exercised through the all-knowing vanguard party?

We argue that beyond this depiction of “Lenin the bureaucrat”, by both Leftist admirers and conservative critics, there exists an alternative trajectory present in the thinking of the Soviet leader. This subterranean Lenin is one who is open to acknowledging the contingency of events, confronting disruptions caused by crisis and willing to learn from the heroic initiatives of ordinary people. Through this theoretical openness, Lenin challenged exhausted categories, reposing the political questions of his time beyond the existing limits of theory. We argue that Lenin’s theoretical approach was not a closed system but rather what we can call an open Marxism. He called it a guide to action.

Due to his serious engagement with the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Marx, Lenin emphasised that reality is always much more intricate, lively, and multicolored than theory can ever be, and that theory must continually be developed and transformed through experience and engagement with real political struggles of the masses. We believe a re-reading of Lenin through this lens is crucial if we are to build a socialist politics adequate to our uncertain times.

Lenin’s Break from Orthodox Marxism

Many commentators on Lenin’s thought emphasise how Lenin saw the vanguard party as the site par excellence for political thinking. This stems from a specific reading of his famous work What is to be Done? that views party cadres as essential in bringing political consciousness to the working class. The notion applied a rigid bifurcation between theory and practice, where theoretical ideas appeared from outside the unfolding class struggle rather than being immanent to it.

It is important to note that Lenin’s thought took a major leap in 1914. The beginning of the First World War shattered Western mythology of linear progress that had sustained both liberal and Marxist thought. The horrific violence of the war buried the certainties of orthodox Marxist thinking, revealing the contingent and untimely nature of political events. It is at this juncture that Lenin became interested in Hegel’s dialectics, making detailed notes from Hegel’s Science of Logic to comprehend the crisis of theory in the midst of the Great War. His primary break from conventional Marxism began to appear in this period as he moved away from linear notions of time and began paying more attention to the contradictory rhythm of revolutionary politics, with its unexpected initiatives, traumatic reversals and novel possibilities.

This interest in grasping the contradictions of the actual unfolding political movements made Lenin less interested in the rigidity of the party and the program. He was now more interested in the new creative energy of workers who demonstrated their capacity to take initiatives in the form of organised Soviets that emerged in the middle of the war. After observing the appearance of the Soviets, Lenin came to the conclusion that a new possibility in politics had opened up and, therefore, argued that the current form of the Bolshevik Party will become obsolete if it doesn’t transform itself in sync with the rhythm of the growing workers movement.

This meant that the workers of Russia had demonstrated their capacity to win power and reorganise society through self-mobilisation, making bourgeois democrats and liberals redundant in the struggle for socialism. In that sense, Lenin recognised that practice alone should not have the burden of becoming adequate to theory but theory itself had to be transformed to become adequate to the questions emanating from the terrain of concrete struggles.

Lenin developed his notion of socialism alongside the formation of the Soviets, demonstrating workers’ power—a force repressed by the logic of capital. Soviets represented the creative initiatives and vital energy of the workers. This capacity of the masses for self-determination and for reorganising the world freed from the tyranny of capital is what socialism was for Lenin. Some of his most popular writings during this period attempted to synthesise the lessons of the upheavals caused by the workers movement and to relate them to the crisis of state power and volatility of the global conjuncture.

This is why Lenin did not keep his theory in his books or to himself but used it as political interventions to deepen debate within the actual social struggles. The Threatening Catastrophe, Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, State and Revolution and other writings offer concrete explanations of strategic possibilities for socialist politics in the political conjuncture.. He was convinced that all ideas must be submitted to discussions with organised workers who were laying the seeds for a new world. Today our task is similar to that of Lenin as we intimately attach ourselves with the creative initiatives and new energies of workers that are developing amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is from the vantage point of existing struggles alone that we will be able to develop a notion of socialism adequate to our concrete reality. 

Lenin after the Revolution

The tragedy of the Russian Revolution is that the flexibility in thought and practice displayed by Lenin after the revolution was replaced by the dogma of the party. Raya Dunyevskaya pointed out in her book, Philosophy and Revolution, that “never, for a single moment, did Lenin ever lose sight of the program. He made strategic concessions, but he kept the program, the new Universal, concretely before the people.”

For example, in his pamphlet “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, Lenin defines the tasks of the workers as the creation of new “subtle and intricate” relations of labor. Without the creative power of the workers, there would be no socialist revolution. That is how Lenin saw the task of the government, to conjure, to draw out this creative power, to clear out of its way the leftovers of the old bourgeois ideology, including its institutions and social practices. Speaking at the Fourth Conference of Trade Unions in 1920, Lenin articulated the crisis of the Soviet state with his usual precision, stating “The workers as workers must in their unions protect themselves, their economic and cultural interests, against the workers acting in their party as rulers of the state.” Lenin here identifies a tension between workers embedded in the state apparatus and workers involved in the politics of the workplace—a productive, dialectical tension that undermines the later Stalinist emphasis on absolute loyalty to the Socialist State and the party.

More importantly, by insisting that workers should organise independently, Lenin was emphasising the capacity of subaltern groups to organise themselves as a ruling bloc. It is pertinent to note that Lenin was writing in a country that was still largely agrarian and needed an alliance of different marginalised social groups to build an alternative political project. This meant that the revolution could not follow an already defined path and had to be seen as an experiment in popular participation rather than as an application of an already existing theory.

In his essay “On Cooperation”, for example, he engaged with the problem of party bureaucracy and warned that governance without mass participation is antithetical to socialism. He said,

We should cover Russia, specifically the peasant Russia with a network of peasant cooperatives. The peasants are not active, they are not administering the state, and they are not administering the economy. We have to devise ways and means of making them administer. Cooperation is the way. We are backward, we have not enough culture to make the state of State and Revolution, but if we can get this nationwide co-operative system among the peasants, this would be socialism, as far as we can get.

In other words, only the involvement of working masses in administration could up the possibility of a different order—a theory that nullifies the rigid belief in industrial production as the only hallmark of progress.

COVID-19, Pakistan and the Relevance of Lenin

Lenin’s confrontation with linear notions of time and his insistent on practice to mediate the gap between theory and reality made him an important interlocutor for revolutionary movements in the Global South.  . His name became synonymous with the de-centering of the revolutionary movement from Europe as anti-colonial fighters took their inspiration from the Soviet Union’s adversarial position towards colonialism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lenin’s writings in places like Pakistan rivaled those of Marx in terms of popularity, making Lenin a major mediator between Marxist theory and anti-colonial struggles.

Yet, the Lenin that is popular in Pakistan is a particular kind of Lenin who had already figured out the theory and laws of revolution for the entire world. In this simplistic analysis, the vanguard party is the arbitrator in the revolutionary movement and has the final decision-making power on essential questions of the class struggle. Moreover, it appears as if the categories constructed by Lenin were not limited to the time space in which he conducted his struggle, but were abstract concepts that could be fitted into any external situation. Thus, many of our comrades stick to Lenin’s conclusions which appear rigid, while jettisoning his method that privileges the contingency of social struggles over existing political theory.

In other words, today in Pakistan we are faced with a complex political terrain that demands that we innovate in practice. For example, we are experiencing a loss of deeply held certainties on the political stage. There is no political party that proposes a significantly different vision of development other than the one proposed by International Financial Institutions. The situation became more precarious under COVID-19 as millions of people have been rendered jobless, their worth reduced to the machines that have become redundant during the crisis. What are we witnessing is the disposability of lives that appear superfluous from the point of view of capital.

With the collapse of linear notions of development, the central question for the ruling class is how to manage the poor rather than empowering them. This means that we need a more expansive understanding of political subjectivity in Pakistan to build a genuinely popular alternative.

For example, the existing politics of trade unions is hopelessly inadequate at a time when neoliberalism has eroded the concept of long-term employment and has transformed a vast majority of the workforce into informal labour or unemployed. As trade unions only continue to cater to the salaried classes, union membership has dropped to below one percent of the workforce. The situation requires annulling the gap between contract and salaried workers, as well as between the growing number of unemployed youth.

This is precisely what Lenin meant when he pushed his comrades to move beyond trade unionism or the immediate battle at the work place. Unless one takes into account both production and reproduction (the latter involving housing, health care, education, water), we will not be able to build working class unity that can seriously confront the myriad ways in which capital seeks to divide the people. We need to build workers committees who not only agitate on the factory floor but link these struggles with those in the communities where a large number of unemployed youth reside.

Moreover, new forms of resistance have emerged against Pakistan’s decadent state structure that excludes large sections of the population from the ambit of citizenship. One example is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) which represents Pashtuns from the war-torn areas of ex-FATA. The region was reduced to mere cannon fodder for the state and imperialism’s geo-strategic calculus. It is in the context of a war economy and brutal repression of communities in Pakistan’s peripheral regions that a movement such as PTM, which asserts the dignity of the people, can gain so much popularity. The state has responded by accusing such movements of being foreign conspiracies, since they exceed the normative language that the state uses to designate acceptable behaviour. This is why grassroots activists such as Baba Jan from Gilgit-Baltistan, Mehr Abul Sattar from Okara Military Farms and a host of abducted activists from Sindh and Balochistan appear as a major threat to the state. They all insist on asserting their equal status by demanding justice, and thus exceed the violently patrolled boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour in Pakistan.

We are also witnessing the emergence of a powerful movement for women’s emancipation that is challenging the patriarchal structures of society. Hundreds of young women have mobilised under the banners of Aurat March and Aurat Azadi March, putting women’s rights on the national agenda. Similarly, last year saw the emergence of a new consciousness on the climate crisis among the youth of the country. The Climate March in September last year saw hundreds of young people pour out into the streets of dozens of cities in Pakistan to protest our disastrous economic model that not only diminishes the dignity of labour but is annihilating the environment on which we depend.

Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, many orthodox Marxists view these movements with suspicion as they do not follow the trajectory of class dualism. Yet they shed light on the disparate forms of oppression that are essential to peripheral capitalism and also point out the absences within the Left, particularly on the role of women in any emancipatory struggle.

It is precisely here that the repressed side of Lenin discussed at the beginning of the article is so crucial to unearth. Lenin is not a thinker who imagines class struggle to be a neat and clear antagonism between workers on the one hand and the bourgeoisie on the other. Instead, he recognises the historically-sedimented differences that are used by the state to cement its power, a fact that shapes the terrain of the class struggle in each specific context. As Mathieu Regnault has argued, Lenin is a thinker of combinations of struggles that can help produce an alternative politics that could not only confront the hegemony of capital over people’s lives, but also undermine the power of the state that uses coercion to separate people from each other.

The point is made clearer in the following quote by Lenin on the impurity of the revolution.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

This is the side of Lenin who is looking for strategic alliances, weakest links and is not afraid of appearing “impure” in order to advance the struggle of the oppressed. If the Left has to move towards a winnable strategy, we must play the role of building bridges between different indices of pain and combining them to produce a common project. In Pakistan, this means bringing together the politics of oppressed nationalities, unemployed and precarious youth, women and the climate justice movement with that of traditional unions to create a new political subject adequate to the questions of our time.

We must acknowledge that currently the Left in Pakistan does not have the form that can weld together these different struggles. But if we learn from the Lenin who privileged practical innovation over theoretical fidelity, we will be able to open up space to develop a new hypothesis for the Left. Our task here is less of an attachment to scientific “laws of revolution” allegedly discovered by orthodox Marxists and implemented by the party. Instead, we must create a new conceptual vocabulary for understanding the present moment and imagining novel horizons for our practice. The challenges of today’s revolutionary politics force us to think as artists involved in building new constellations of love and solidarity. As a profound thinker of excessive contingency and unexpected encounters, Lenin is a major interlocutor for us in our efforts to build a new revolutionary practice in Pakistan.

Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.

Zahid Ali is a member of the Haqooq e Khalq Movement and currently working as research assistant at LUMS.

The Moral Virus

Illustration: The New York Times

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

There is a popular joke about the promise of celestial virgins (hoors) for pious Muslim men who make it to heaven—it quips how this promise is not really a reward for the eager men but more of a punishment for the hoors.

Tariq Jameel’s supplications in the government’s fundraising telethon have been controversial for all the wrong reasons. The indignation over his blaming delinquent youth and immodest women for the COVID-19 pandemic or the outrage over his graphic sermons about hoors are misplaced.  Such tropes and imagery have always proliferated in Friday sermons, madrassa teachings, jihadi training and in religious programming and pietist fiction. Plenty of similar content can be found in the historic works of Muslim ethicists too.

The ashrafia feigns offense on the hoor erotica as told by Muslim clerics and stereotypes them as crude, oversexualised and unscholarly. But many of the elite classes themselves practice and consume sexual willfulness (including pornography) covertly and secretively. Prudish middle class morality is only averse to sexual expression when it is part of public discourse, art, or education. Both the conservative and liberal schools of thought privilege men’s sexualities over that of other genders. Only purists on both sides agree that women must not be reduced to or objectified as sexual fantasies. Instead, ideological purists invisibilize the female body under the pretext of protection.

According to traditional Muslim ethical and spiritual teachings, women are considered to possess weak nafses and their physical desires are either neglected or require taming. Meanwhile, the material reality is that Islamic laws regulate Pakistanis’ sexual conduct with a special focus on policing women. While there are some compensatory rights for women in these philosophical and legal fields, these are not equally compelling or compellingly equal.

There are no advocates for Muslim women’s sexual equality and male (and female) clerics continue to privilege Muslim men’s sexualities as the norm. Correcting this inequality is a political project and difficult in a brutally patriarchal and sharply gender-segregated society that puts premium on, or fetishizes, the sexual purity and haya of women as some social cure for imagined moral viruses. With no alternative register for computing women’s sexual desires, promises or problems, which standard can underwrite sexual equality in Pakistan?

Somewhere along the historic path and capitalist advancement, Muslim marriage became disconnected from sexual pleasure and reduced to a procreative arrangement. Over decades, the matrimonial sections of our newspapers reveal that the ideal marriageable woman is a lesser or human version of a hoor—fair-skinned, beautiful, simple, obedient, pious, educated, yet modest or wrapped in veil. A foreign passport is a useful asset, too.

While the matrimonials describe the good wife in urban and domestic terms, the heavenly hoor in popular sermons is imagined as curiously antithetical to the Muslim wife—post-human, permanently libidinous, tantalizingly made up, fashionably semi-clothed, a mute sex siren (presumably infertile because child-care is not a responsibility to be repeated in paradise). This split in hoor/wife expectations is a perverse replication of the Madonna/whore dichotomy said to define expectations of femininity in traditionally Christian societies.

The real crisis, however, is not clerics reifying female sexuality through the hoor promise—it is quite common to explain abstractions in material or physical terms: pleasure, love, labour and freedoms are notions that are routinely reified in societies and materialised by capitalism, to the point of becoming fetishized. Any lofty objections to the hoor ideal will mean challenging the spiritual and sexual privileges assured to Muslim men in the Islamic gendered order. Clerics like Jameel are simply the gatekeepers who guard against such theft.

It may be a valuable project to trace the historic overlaps and consequential disconnect between Muslim sexuality and marriage or even same-sex desire, but this will not fix the unequal social or power relations between genders. It would also be self-defeating to get into a debate that attempts to rationalize a divine fantasy or plays the male hoor card. Efforts to level the field are also exploited by many leftist and liberal men who equate sexual liberation with the ‘freedom’ for women to provide men casual sexual gratification.

Instead, the required task is to recover and support Muslim women’s sexuality as valid on its own terms and to cultivate a vocabulary for a worldly discussion on how sexual inequalities define social and power relations in Pakistan. Muslim women need to rewrite and represent female desire—not for sacrificial, pious purposes or as moral medicine but for their bodily autonomy, rights and pleasure. The hoor fantasy, otherwise, will linger as a sexualized, passive, Muslim feminine ideal, in contrast to women who will only be valued as pious versions with no sexual agency of their own and whose prime purpose will be to serve men and index the virtues of an entire society.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia is the author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan (SAP, UK; Folio, Lahore, 2018).

Capitalism, Crises and Human Life


The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest crisis that has had a major impact on human life. Two other crises are also upon us: the crisis of growing inequality and the environmental crisis. The former places a stress on the fabric of societies and the latter threatens all life on earth. In this paper we trace the roots of all three crises in the structural features of capitalism. In the first section, the relationships between the state, the market and communities are examined in light of the current pandemic. In the second section, we analyse the phenomenon of growing economic inequalities and the inequality of power inherent in the capital labour relation. In the third section, the environmental crisis is traced to the tendencies located in the structure of the capitalist economy. Here we explore the peculiar relationship that capitalism has created between humans and commodities on the one hand and humans and nature on the other.     

State, Market and the People

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on human life. In the capitalist world, the widespread suffering following the outbreak has cast aside the veil of ideology that the market system delivers the ‘maximum good of the maximum number’. What has been revealed is the structure of a mode of production that, left unchecked by democratic government, caters to the needs of the few at the expense of the many. While there are enough high-tech nuclear weapons in the advanced capitalist countries to destroy life, there is a shortage of simple masks, gowns and ventilators to preserve life. In the US during the lockdown, while the rich ensconced in their mansions had enough to enjoy gourmet meals served by liveried waiters, the poor had to stand in long queues for state handouts of food in little brown bags.

 Never before was the inability of the market to deliver public welfare so stark. Never before was the flaw so apparent in the view that the government has only a minimal role as facilitator to the free functioning of markets. The ideological belief that less government is good government led to under-funding of public health infrastructure. In Spain and Italy, for example, hospitals were so overloaded with patients struck by the disease that many had to lie in crowded corridors awaiting treatment. Distraught doctors desperately short of equipment, had to decide which patients to let die and which to try saving.

In the face of the mysterious virus and the lockdown, there was fear and social isolation. At the same time, ordinary people across the world came forward with acts of heroic compassion to affirm their humanity and sense of community. Doctors, nurses and health workers with inadequate personal protective equipment, fought to save the lives of patients, even as hundreds of their colleagues died of the infection. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters volunteered to buy groceries for old people confined to their homes in England or provide rations to the unemployed in Pakistan. Others mobilised charity for those in need in country after country. In India as well as in Pakistan, a wide range of NGOs, charities and other civil society organisations came into action to provide relief to those pushed into hunger by the lockdown. 

 A 99 year old war veteran in England, barely able to walk, undertook to collect a thousand pounds as a donation for the National Health Service by walking a hundred laps of his garden. There was a flood of donations from the UK and 52 other countries and he ended up collecting 37 million dollars. He had touched a nerve with his courage and compassion that brought people together into a community that cared.  

From the terrible experience of the pandemic, three lessons that strike at the foundations of contemporary economic wisdom can be drawn:

First, the market mechanism, contrary to neo-classical theory, currently the dominant paradigm in economics, does not necessarily deliver efficient outcomes in terms of the public good. Worse, in a situation of the unequal distribution of income, it allocates national resources for the production of a basket of goods that may deny an unacceptably large proportion of citizens the minimum goods and services necessary for their health and a dignified life. 

The reason for this misallocation of national resources in terms of the criterion of public welfare, is that need is expressed in the production system as demand only when it is backed by purchasing power. The underprivileged do not have the purchasing power to register an adequate vote for their needs. The lesson therefore is that the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services for society. 

The market is essentially an impersonal coordinating mechanism.[1] It does not work very well (by the criterion of public welfare) as a framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services in a situation of unequal distribution of income. Left to itself, the market system over time tends to accentuate inequality (see the next section). Thus, the pursuit of public welfare requires that other coordinating mechanisms should also be used, such as the government, local community organisations and civil society.[2] 

Second, the idea derived from mainstream economics that the government has only a marginal role to play in free market-based economies has proven to be invalid. Democratic governments are supposed to aim for the welfare of society as a whole. Yet governments until now have stood by as the market system failed to cater to even the survival needs of many citizens, let alone advance the welfare of all. The pandemic has made people aware that the government, not the market, must take the lead in pursuing the aim of public welfare. The economy must work for all citizens, not just the elite. 

The third lesson of the pandemic is recognition of a fundamental flaw in the assumption of neo-classical economics– that society is atomised and consists of isolated individuals who, without regard to others, pursue their individual material interests. The expression of social responsibility in myriad acts of quiet heroism has demonstrated the simple fact that humans have an essential relatedness with each other. The ‘rationality’ of the individual, as neo-classical theory presupposes, is not just that the individual finds satisfaction exclusively in personal acquisition. Beyond pure selfishness, there are inter-personal considerations, whereby individuals get fulfilment in caring for others and sometimes sacrificing for the community.[3] The collective battle against the pandemic has shown, as so many times before in human history, the importance of society working together to overcome adversity. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual, must become a category of analysis in the study of the economy. The community should also become an important consideration in the formulation of economic policy. 

Economic orthodoxy holds that even though in this case the market has failed, such market failures are unusual events and the market system itself normally delivers not only welfare but continuous improvement in the lives of people. This, they argue, has been achieved over the last three hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, through the mostly continuous process of market-based economic growth and the technological change underlying it. In the ensuing analysis we will question this view by examining some of the structural features of capitalism to show how it has systematically generated two phenomena that are inimical to the wellbeing of many and indeed all life: First, the growing inequalities in income and wealth, whereby the elites live in fabulous luxury amidst the misery of millions. Second, the environmental crisis that is undermining life support systems and hence threatening life on planet earth.

Roots of Inequality

During the second half of the twentieth century, it was believed by economics orthodoxy, as indeed by most governments in the capitalist world, that initial inequalities will in time be reduced by market forces as the process of economic growth proceeds. This view was based on the work of Nobel Laureate, Simon Kuznets, who marshalled evidence from a number of countries to argue that inequality would first increase, then as economic growth proceeds, inequality will decline through the market mechanism.[4] Kuznets’ bell-shaped curve showing the relationship between growth and inequality, had a major influence on the design of growth strategies in many underdeveloped countries, especially in Pakistan. Here, it was thought that the size of the cake should first be increased before worrying about inequality. During the decade of the 1960s, the policy makers in Pakistan went a step further and actually initiated policies for a further increase in inequality as a means of maximizing economic growth. This was called the doctrine of ‘Functional Inequality’, whereby, on the assumption that only the rich save and invest, policies were undertaken to make the rich richer, so that high rates of investment, and thereby high rates of economic growth, could be achieved.[5]

Recently, in a seminal study, Thomas Piketty, showed on the basis of data from a large number of countries over a 150-year period that inequality within the market-based system, far from declining over time, has actually increased.[6]Piketty thus put the Kuznets theory to rest, calling it a ‘fairy story’. 

Inequality in the world capitalist economy today has reached a point where the very social fabric and integrity of states could be threatened. According to one estimate, one percent of the world’s population has as much wealth as the rest of the 99 percent put together.[7] While a small global elite lives in fabulous luxury, 821.6 million in the world are hungry (1 in 9 people), and 2 billion people are food insecure.[8]  At the same time, 198.4 million children suffer from malnutrition (stunting and wasting). Capitalism, after three centuries of economic growth, has created a situation where, while the rich live in unprecedented affluence, millions suffer from hunger.    

It can be argued that the tendency of growing inequality that Piketty has observed empirically is rooted in the very structure of the capitalist economy. The fundamental design feature of this structure is the unequal production relationship between the capitalist and the labourer. Bereft of the means of production, the labourer, to survive, has to sell his labour power as a commodity to the capitalist who owns the means of production. Now the unique use value of labour power as a commodity is that it can produce more value than its own. So as the capitalist buys labour power at its market price (the wage), he appropriates the difference between the value of the commodity labour power and the value it produces, that is, surplus value.[9]        

 The existence of surplus value is based on the fact that the labourer does not have the power to negotiate his wage to a point where it would equal the value he produces. The magnitude of the surplus value depends on how much greater the power of the capitalist is relative to the labourer. Over time, the capitalist is able to increase the rate of surplus value by increasing labour productivity through investment in new, more efficient machines that embody new technology. Thus, the capital-labour relationship is essentially a relationship of unequal power.

It can be argued that the increasing share of the return on capital in national income is based on this continued inequality of power in the capital-labour relation. The process of technological change that unfolds within this relationship enhances the power of capital relative to labour, unless labour wields a countervailing power through worker organisations. 

Thus, the growing income inequality apparent in Piketty’s empirical work is in reality located in inequality in the structure of the profit-driven economic growth process. This structural inequality in turn manifests the underlying dialectic of power between capital and labour. This is a dialectic that defines the period of history called capitalism.

Capitalism, the Environment and the Threat to All Life

It is now well established by scientists that in the period since the Industrial Revolution there has been a rapid degradation of the physical environment. There has been pollution of both the surface and groundwater hydrologic systems due to the deposition of industrial waste; increasing infertility of soils due to over use in agriculture production and associated loss of humus in the topsoil. The application of toxic chemical pesticides accentuates soil infertility; and finally, air pollution in urban centres poses a threat to human health. These forms of environmental degradation in themselves have major adverse effects on human life. But what is a matter of the greatest concern to the world community in this context, is the climate crisis, induced by global warming. This has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions of historically unprecedented magnitude.

The landmark Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Mrs. Brundtland in 1986[10], first showed that the physical environment was being damaged due to its unsustainable use by human societies. Later in 2007, the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change published its Fourth Assessment Report, presenting irrefutable evidence to establish two propositions: 

First, global warming has indeed occurred, as “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years…”[11]  Second, this climatic change was not part of some natural cycle, but was the direct result of human intervention into the physical environment by the levels and forms of production, consumption and waste disposal.

The IPCC Report predicted that global warming would increase the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events, including more frequent and more devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes. At the same time, mass migrations following climate-related loss of livelihoods, water scarcity and food shortages could result in great human misery and major social disruptions. The changed vectors of diseases following shifts in temperature zones were also predicted to cause significant damage to human health.   

Despite a number of international agreements such as in the Kyoto and Copenhagen climate summits, no serious action was taken to implement commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This was largely due to the concern that creating disincentives to the use of fossil fuel-based technologies may reduce investment and thereby economic growth. Furthermore, the shift to green technologies would involve writing off the investments made in the existing machine stock.[12] Even where the green technology was cheaper than the fossil fuel-based technology the cost of shifting in some cases still make it economically infeasible, allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise rapidly. 

As global warming accelerated, a major summit was held in Paris in December 2015. At this summit, leading scientists stressed to the assembled world leaders that if present trends in emissions remained unchecked, the average global temperatures could increase beyond 2 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. If this happens there could be a catastrophic destabilisation of the life support system of the planet threatening all life on earth. These grim prospects brought a sense of urgency and the leaders resolved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such that the average global temperature increase by the end of this century would be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. 

To achieve the goal of keeping below this ceiling of temperature increase by the end of this century and avoid a climate catastrophe, it was calculated as necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, and this became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). What has actually happened since then? If the zero-emission goal by 2050 is to be achieved, there would have to be an average annual reduction of carbon emissions by 3 percent. In actual fact emissions have been steadily rising by 5.3 percent. 

Clearly, the world has moved in the opposite direction to what is required to save life on earth. The question is why? China as well as a number of social democratic countries in Europe have taken significant steps to shift to green technologies, though, even in their case meeting the UN SDGs zero-emission by 2050 target, remains uncertain. The gap between targets and performance so far is much greater in the case of most capitalist countries. In the case of the current US leadership, they are in denial of the fact of global warming and have actually revoked the US commitments made at the 2015 Paris summit.

 It can be argued that such is the desire for more commodities and such is the power of big Capital that any public policy that would threaten the growth of profits and consumption faces strong political constraints. The tendency for a continuous increase in production and consumption we will argue is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production and the psyche it has fashioned in the process of its expansion.

There are three tendencies that are rooted in the structure of the Capitalist System:

First, the individual firm is placed in a competitive environment, where the imperative of survival is to continuously reinvest a large part of its net profit for expansion of output and further profit. 

Second, in the process of reinvestment, the firm introduces technological change embodied in new machines, with a view to increase labour productivity and thereby the rate of surplus value. This further accelerates the process of growth of output and profits.

The third structural feature is that, as the volume and range of goods expands, a sales effort has to be undertaken to ensure that the goods produced are actually sold. The design of the advertisement sends a subliminal message that influences the psyche of individuals to create a desire for the commodity.[13] At the aggregate level this has created a consumerist culture. Thus, as Marx presciently observed, “The Capitalist system not only produces goods that satisfy needs, but also the needs these goods satisfy.”

Over two centuries of this systematic sales effort, a cultural and individual psyche has been fashioned, whereby the individual is driven by the insatiable desire to buy more and more. A new relationship peculiar to the historical epoch of capitalism has been created between the individual and commodities. Qualities of power, attractiveness, sexuality that are organic to human beings are transposed into commodities. They are then represented not so much in terms of their functional attributes, but are re-presented as embodiments of qualities we originally experienced as our own. A luxury car is not simply a vehicle that takes one from A to B, but is the embodiment of sexual attractiveness, success and status. Thus, in buying commodities the individual essentially is attempting to re-possess himself. These three tendencies underlie the continuous increase in the volume and range of products in capitalist society.

It is the structural imperatives of capital that have fashioned a culture where commodities have a psychic power over individuals. It is such a psyche and the associated political forces that constrain a shift to forms of social life where commodities would be considered ‘merely useful’, as Aristotle observed[14], or ‘mere dust’, as the Sufis suggest.[15] How distant has the world become from nurturing our sense of beauty, truth, and loving kindness towards all creatures as a measure of well-being.

Just as in the case of commodities, a new relationship has been established between humans and nature to suit the needs of capital accumulation. These relationships are divorced from the perennial intellectual tradition of both East and West. Under capitalism, nature has been seen in fragmented terms, as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the production of commodities. By contrast, in the perennial tradition, nature was seen as a sacred wholeness. It provided through the unity of the ecosystem the material conditions for sustaining our physical life. At the same time, through its harmony, the environment nurtures our sense of beauty and thereby evokes the transcendent.[16] Thus, nature enables humans to live in both the ephemeral and the eternal.   

Given the perception in this epoch of nature as a set of fragmented natural resources, it is not surprising that water systems have been polluted, soils rendered toxic, forests depleted and greenhouse gases built up to a point where global warming is occurring. Few were concerned with this spoliation of nature for three centuries of industrial growth. Even now, when the evidence has become clear that environmental degradation poses a threat to all life, very few countries have acted to meet the agreed goals of emission reduction.


In this paper we have analysed the structural basis of the three major crises confronting human society: the pandemic, the crisis of inequality and the environmental crisis. 

The current health crisis has been examined in terms of the contradictions of capitalism that this crisis has revealed. Three lessons can be drawn from this analysis. First, the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods. Second, contrary to the prescription of mainstream economics, the market mechanism on its own cannot deliver public welfare. The government has a key role to play in achieving this aim and hence setting the priorities of what is to be produced, how much and for whom. Third, contrary to the dominant economic theory, the functioning of society involves social relationships. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual should become a unit of analysis and an important consideration in the design of public policy.

The growing inequalities in capitalist society are traced to the capital-labour relation and the unequal power underlying this relation. The dynamics of the appropriation of surplus value, its continuous reinvestment and associated technological change in the process of capital accumulation, are manifested in growing inequality.

Finally, we have analysed the emergence of the environmental crisis and the failure so far to reduce carbon emissions in terms of the tendency for the continuous increase in the volume and range of commodities that is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production. In the effort to sell products firms engage in systematic advertisement campaigns that in the aggregate have created a consumerist culture. A particular psyche has been fashioned through this process whereby the individual is driven by an insatiable desire to buy more and more. 

 Given the imperatives to expand production and the single-minded pursuit to increase consumption, nature is seen in fragmented terms as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the process of production and consumption. 

We conclude by suggesting that such is the power of capital and the consumers’ impulse for increased consumption that any constraint to the expansion of both would be resisted.[17] At the same time, the current struggle by human communities for environmental protection and providing succour to the hungry and the sick provide grounds for hope. The structural basis of each of the three crises faced by humankind suggests that there is a basic conflict of economic interest between the global power elite and the people.

A concomitant of this contradiction is the culture shaped by the imperatives of capital accumulation. This culture is characterised by the fetishism of commodities, the atomisation of society into individuals pitted against each other and the perception of nature as a set of natural of resources to be exploited for commodity production.

An essential feature of the political struggle to confront the interests of the elite with the interests of the people is to build a counter-culture to the culture of capitalism. Such a culture would engender a new relationship between humans, commodities and nature. A culture of relatedness with others within a human community; where commodities are seen as being merely useful and not the embodiment of power; and where nature is experienced as beauty within a sacred wholeness. Such a consciousness can become a material force in the struggle for human liberation to enhance life.

Akmal Hussain, Distinguished Professor, is a development economist and Founding Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Information Technology University, Lahore.

End Notes

[1] Robert Neild, “Economics in Disgrace: the Need for a Reformation”, Discussion Paper, 01-13, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics, 2013.

[2] Ali Jan and Fahd Ali, “Beyond the Market: Polanyian Reflections on Economics in the Time of COVID-19”, (ITU Webinar Talk, May 9, 2020).

[3] Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism Consciousness and Development,” Economic Theory and Policy Amidst Global Discontent, eds. Ananya Ghosh Dastidar, Rajeev Malhotra and Vivek Suneja (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[4] Simon Kuznets, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” The American Economic Review, 45, no. 1 (1955): 1-28.

[5] Akmal Hussain, “Institutions, Economic Structure and Poverty in Pakistan”, South Asia Economic Journal, 5, no. 1, (January-June 2004). 

[6] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[7] Winnie Byanyima, “Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016”, Oxfam, January 19, 2015.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organizaton, “World hunger is still not going down after three years and obesity is still growing.” United Nations, July 15, 2019.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume I, ed. Frederick Engels (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1954), 204-20.

[10] Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Our Common Future”, UN World Commission on Environment and Development, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[11] Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2

[12] For a detailed discussion of the economic constraints to green technology adoption, see: Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism, Consciousness and Development”, Chapter 3, pages 48-49, in Ananya Ghosh Dastidar et. al. (eds), Economic Theory and Public Policy Amidst Global Discontent, (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[13] Akmal Hussain, “Commodities and the Displacement of Desire”, Daily Times, November 28, 2002

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

[15] Shah Hussain, the 18th century Sufi Poet who said in one of his Kafis, “Lakh crore jinnaan de jurria, so bhi jhoori jhoori”, or “Even those who have accumulated large sums of money, that too is mere dust.” (Trans.), Kaafian Shah Hussain, Majlis Shah Hussain, Lahore, 1966.

[16] Akmal Hussain, The Eternal in the Ephemeral, (Lahore: Topical Printers, 2014). See particularly the seminal works on this subject: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature, (Chicago: Kazi Publications Inc., 2007) and Man and the Order of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 

[17] I am grateful to Dr. Zafar Shaheed as well as the editors for helpful comments that led me to elaborate this conclusion. However, any errors of omission or commission are the responsibility of the author alone.

A Call for Revolutionary Internationalism


Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonized people, what kind of revolution are you waging?

~ Ho Che Minh

For all of the outrage that many rightly feel, it is not surprising that the Pakistan state’s inherently authoritarian streak has come to the fore in the midst of the pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed the racialised and gendered logic of capital everywhere, not least of all in post-colonial states. The murder of Arif Wazir, the discovery of Sajid Hussain’s body in Sweden two months after he disappeared and the killing of two young Baloch men who had turned to militancy only a few short years after graduating from the country’s pre-eminent public sector university are not necessarily coordinated actions as part of a wider state policy devised to ‘take advantage’ of the shutdown of ‘normal life’ due to the novel coronavirus. They are just the most recent and spectacular episodes in the subcontinent’s longstanding series of colonial statecraft.

Put differently, these incidents simply remind us of what ‘normal’ looks like in Pakistan’s ethnic peripheries, pandemic or not. The fates of these young men are on the extreme pole of a spectrum of repression that awaits those who make the conscious political choice to challenge the colonial writ of the state. It is not as if the community of political dissidents in Pakistan is comprised only of Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi youth. Nor that all Pashtun and Baloch youth are, by dint of their ethnic identity, necessarily dissidents. Even if our numbers are small and we are sadly as divided as united, the political community of what can broadly be termed ‘progressives’ in Pakistan includes many from within the Punjabi heartland of power as well.[1]

But there is little doubt that a wholly disproportionate weight of violent repression falls on the shoulders of those labeled ‘suspicious’ simply by virtue of their ethnic inheritance. The experience of discrimination is felt viscerally by Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and other historically oppressed ethnic-nations. This includes a host of depredations visited upon them on their own soil. The feeling of oppression is exacerbated in urban centres and/or central regions, where they go to escape the ravages of war/terrorism, or for education/employment in the hope and expectation of upward social mobility. The humiliation visited upon them as migrants is particularly galling, as confirmed by both the murder of Naquibullah Mehsud, the lightning rod for the formation of PTM, and the journey of Shah Daad and Ihsaan Baloch from the ‘civility’ of enrolling as Quaid-e-Azam University’s students to ‘pariahs’ picking up arms against the state.

I wish to qualify the above statement about repression necessarily being the fate of those who consciously choose to become political rebels. It is axiomatic that the worst wrath of the (post) colonial state is reserved for the most self-aware and conscious political workers, including those who hail from the Punjabi heartland.[2] It is, after all, in the central regions of the state that the hegemonic apparatus is most developed: it is here that the education system, mainstream media, religious establishment, etc are tasked with posing unitary state nationalism, Islam-as-cultural-genius and patriarchal normativity as unchallenged objective truths to be parroted by all loyal citizens.

It is, therefore, generally true that for the Punjabi or Urdu-speaking dissident, political awakening is not borne of personal suffering, but of a recognition that the dominant ‘objective truths’ are in fact ‘official’ histories penned by the powerful, in which ethnic peripheries in particular and the wretched of the earth more generally (both in the centre and peripheries) are rendered invisible, even expendable.

For the peripheral subject, however, politicisation is an experience borne of suffering. If one has not been directly subjected to physical or mental torture, then a close relative or acquaintance almost certainly has been.[3] One need not explicitly take up a political cause to be subjected to repression. The most obvious case is that of Baloch youth – so many have been disappeared and/or killed simply for being related to a known dissident, or even for being educated and mixing in certain circles.[4] A similar fate awaited many in Swat, Waziristan and other epicentres of military operations when family members of individuals alleged to be affiliated with the TTP were disappeared and subjected to unspeakable treatment in internment centres.[5]

It is with such examples in mind that it becomes clear what it means to ‘feel’ like  a second-class citizen, or, perhaps most accurately, a colonial subject. I wish to also reiterate, however, that not all Pashtuns, Baloch, Sindhis, Siraikis, Hazaras, and so on inhabit such lifeworlds. The very insidious nature of colonialism is reflected in Fanon’s famous words: “The colonised is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”[6] In the current conjuncture, the equivalent of adopting the ‘mother country’s cultural standards’ is to buy into the established rules of the game – or what I have elsewhere called, following Gramsci, the politics of ‘common sense’.[7] In short, to hail from the ethnic peripheries does not preclude affluence and ascension to positions of power within the ruling class/establishment.[8] By imbibing the logic of capital and peddling the hegemonic narrative of the Pakistani state, particularly vis-a-vis the restive peripheries and the disquieting elements who challenge the edifices of state, class, and other forms of power, the ‘colonised is elevated above his jungle status’.

Hence, there are considerable fissures within the oppressed ethnic-nations of Pakistan, in class and gendered terms especially so. The nation’s most conscious political elements who consider themselves inheritors of the anti-colonial struggle –the contemporary leaders of the national movement – do not deny these internal fissures.

For this political element, as well as for progressives outside the ethnic-nation, the deaths of Arif Wazir, Sajid Hussain, Ihsaan Baloch and Shah Daad Baloch do not constitute a shock as much as confirm what we already know about contemporary colonial statecraft and its brutalising fallouts. Such brutalisation can further limit our imagination of a progressive politics within the confines of the Pakistani state that brings together all of the ethnic-nations that inhabit it, or make even more urgent the building of precisely such a politics. And if so, it is the most conscious political element within and across ethnic-nations that can make revolutionary internationalism our political horizon.

Such a horizon is certainly not beyond our imagination. Oppressed ethnic-nations have made common cause with the Left in the Punjabi/central regions of Pakistan before. Most significantly, the National Awami Party came to power in both Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (at that time known as NWFP) following the 1970 election on a political programme vowing to transform Pakistan into a federal, democratic and socialist polity.

Left praxis throughout the modern period has conceputalised crisis as the progenitor of the new. The pandemic generates potentialities to reset political imaginaries, and ultimately, practices. Examining the imperative of rehabilitating imaginaries of a NAP-type political formation in Pakistan – and also moving beyond it in some crucial ways – is paramount, and first requires an exploration of divergent nationalist movements in Pakistan, particularly in the post-Cold War period.

The Divergent Trajectories of National Movements in Pakistan

Both the Left in Pakistan’s central regions and progressive ethnic-national movements in its peripheries have become more insular during the interregnum known as ‘neo-liberal globalisation’. There are many inter-related reasons for this, including the growing digitalisation of the political field, the tendency to emphasise a politics of recognition over a politics of redistribution[9], as well as more objective factors such as the geographical unevenness of development (both the long-established contradictions between centre and peripheries and the differential developmental trajectories of ethnic peripheries themselves).[10]

Two contemporary ethnic-national movements illuminate both the immediate past and potentialities for the future. These are the two movements most brutalised by the Pakistani state’s prosecution of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ since the turn of the century.[11] While this war was geographically centred on the Pashtun northwest of Pakistan, it was nevertheless a pretext for yet another phase of military operations against Baloch nationalists in both the traditional heartlands of the Baloch ethnic-national movement (Marri, Mengal, Bugti tribal zones) and more emergent centres of nationalism in Makkuran.[12]

The obvious differences between the contemporary Pashtun and Baloch national movements is embodied by the recent deaths/murders of Arif Wazir on the one hand, and Sajid Hussain, Ihsaan Baloch and Shah Daad Baloch on the other. The PTM’s response to Arif Wazir’s cold blooded killing was consistent with its strategic posture since its inception almost 30 months ago: to ask its supporters to remain calm, to reiterate the principle of non-violence, and to refract the burden of violence back onto the state.

Contrast this assertive and relatively unified posture of the Pashtun national movement, celebrated openly in the digital space, to the considerably more masked and fragmented response to the deaths of Sajid Hussain, as well as Ihsaan and Shah Daad. Sajid Hussain had secured political asylum in Sweden two years ago under the pretext of a threat to his life on account of his critical journalism vis-a-vis state repression in Balochistan. While his death thousands of miles away from Pakistan cannot directly be attributed to the state, it certainly reinforced the sense that Baloch who speak for the rights of their nation can face retribution wherever they may be. Meanwhile the personal trajectories of Shah Daad and Ihsaan are even more telling insofar as they reflect that even those Baloch youth seeking to become part of the Pakistani mainstream become disaffected enough to take up arms against the state, eventually losing their lives like so many before them.

While Sajid’s death was mourned to a significant extent by Baloch nationalists and progressives more generally, to lament the fates of Shah Daad and Ihsaan meant equivocation with the militant path the two young men had chosen. While the contemporary state still patronises militancy (or what can be termed cold wars) against other states while visiting terror upon dissidents within its own borders, for progressives to even pose rhetorical questions about the cause of young men like Shah Daad and Ihsaan turning away from the mainstream is to immediately be cast off as a supporter of ‘terrorism’ and ‘anti-state conspiracy’.

Such accusations are certainly nothing new in Pakistan, and reflect the deep penetration of hegemonic state narratives within the body-politic, especially in the Punjabi heartland, but, no less importantly, amongst privileged allies of the establishment in Pashtun, Baloch and other social formations.

Certainly the PTM’s otherwise overtly celebrated politics of non-violence is also relentlessly pilloried by those who uncritically peddle state nationalism, including a significant element of Pashtuns that support the PTI and decry  the PTM as ‘anti-Pakistan’. Yet the difference between the PTM’s much wider reach and the fragmentation of the Baloch national movement confirms that, for all of the slandering of the PTM that takes place alongside violence, harassment and other forms of repression, the movement has remained steadfast in its commitment to non-violence.

PTM’s most mobilised and tech-savvy constituency is that of university-going Pashtuns in urban centres like Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar. In the shape of Shah Daad and Ihsaan, this is precisely the same demographic which, in the Baloch case, is, at least in part, still  drawn to militancy.

Of Structural and Other Violence

For any principled supporter of the national cause, and, for that matter of the wretched of the earth more generally, the most galling aspect of the Baloch condition is the fact that the national movement – and individuals like Shah Daad and Ihsaan – bears the burden of political violence. During the heyday of decolonisation, Jean-Paul Sartre, a celebrated metropolitan philosopher, announced:

If violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.

The Baloch national movement has suffered through the worst forms of colonial state power, compelling at least a segment of the movement to pick up arms. There is, hence, no question of issuing a blanket condemnation of Baloch militancy. So long as the state continues to brutalise Baloch youth, including women, who are increasingly active in the national movement, it must be held primarily responsible for the unending cycle of violence and hate.

While I believe that non-violence as a political horizon, as means and end, is central to revolutionary praxis in our times[13], the present discussion is limited to  the question of strategy. The PTM’s ability to garner what is by any account the biggest support base of any ethnic-national movement of recent times – both amongst Pashtuns themselves as well as non-Pashtuns – is largely due to the ideational power of non-violence, particularly when seen in light of the oppressive ‘War on Terror’ in which both purported antagonists, state and non-state ‘terrorists’, brutalised ordinary people.

There should be no doubt that the military establishment – and the state’s organic intellectuals in the media and educational institutions –constantly provoke the PTM so as to trigger violence. Indeed, the mainstream has repeatedly attempted to depict the PTM as championing violence in any case – the Khar Qamar killings being the most obvious example. But the failure of the state strategy, time and again, suggests that the a non-violent Baloch national movement, in concert with the other national movements and a principled Left in central Pakistan, could also thwart all designs to de-legitimate it.

The question of unity is essential, given the fact that the PTM has gained so much traction, in part because of the significant Pashtun component within the civil and military services, and more generally the demographic fact of Pashtuns being the second biggest ethnic group in the country. The Baloch, in comparison, comprise barely 5% of Pakistan’s total population, and have miniscule representation within the state apparatus, most notably, the army.[14]

Yet the structural violence visited upon the Baloch – in which colonial statecraft is grafted onto a complex of multinational and military capital – derives, in the final analysis, from the same fundamental logics of capital and colonial statecraft that cast a shadow over  the Pashtun, or, for that matter, Sindhi, Gilgit-Baltistani, Kashmiri, Hazara, Siraiki and other oppressed nations.[15] The Baloch are certainly subject to the most brutal and intense forms of physical violence, intimidation and harassment, but then colonial capitalism has, since its inception, always generated difference along racial/ethnic lines – not to mention gendered ones.

It is precisely through Capital’s reproduction of ‘difference’ – refracted through colonial statecraft – that we can only transcend to a universalist politics, or what here I have called revolutionary internationalism. In short, our horizon must be wider than simply resisting the politics of hate propagated by the state, which we often do by reciprocating hate.[16] To posit a forward-looking and constructive politics that prefigures both the political order and society we wish to build – federal, democratic, peaceful, egalitarian, sustainable, beyond toxic masculinity, caring and compassionate – is our primary challenge.

It is of course impossible to countenance such a political horizon without reckoning with historic oppressions that continue into our present. In our multi-national country, with a long history of colonial statecraft, the biggest burden of uncovering the truth falls upon the dominant nation. As suggested at the outset, principled progressives in the Punjabi heartland have tried to carry this burden, and continue to do so today. But in comparison to the heyday of revolutionary decolonisation, the challenge today is indubitably more difficult.

It is not just Punjabi progressives that confront difficulty in addressing the national question. The very fragility of the Pakistani nation-building project has engendered ethnic tensions over a considerable period of time in many different contexts. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Sindh, where Muhajirs were for a long time viewed by the indigenous population as usurpers, particularly with respect to Karachi. In recent times, Sindhi nationalist sentiment has also heightened in relation to Pashtun in-migration in the 2000s when military operations forced many Pashtuns to flee their historic abodes in Swat and the ex-FATA districts.[17] Meanwhile, latent tensions between Baloch and Pashtun communities in Balochistan, as well as the badly brutalised Hazaras in Quetta, rear their head from time to time. Over the past few years occasional sparks have also flown between Baloch and Siraiki nationalists in districts like DG Khan and Rajanpur.

In all of these cases, truth is necessary for reconciliation. As ever, it is the most conscious political element of each respective national movement that must lead the way in this regard. To build a meaningful political coalition of ethnic-nations and working people in as fractured and brutalised a context as Pakistan – in which so many ordinary working people from across ethnic-national divides feel compelled to simply follow the lead of status quo forces to navigate state and market – cannot start from a point of judgment in which any particular national movement – or left in central regions – lords over any other partner in the struggle. We must begin from a position of empathy and understanding, establishing a minimum agenda – and attendant strategies – to build a viable movement.

But to build a viable hegemonic coalition that can clearly articulate an anti-establishment politics in the mainstream like the NAP must be our horizon. Simply limiting ourselves to resisting the excess of colonial statecraft – or class exploitation or patriarchal oppression as the case may be – means that we are likely to continue preaching to the already converted. To build a hegemonic coalition – which means pulling over onto our side those who have hitherto bought into the ideology of colonialism – requires a long and conscious effort in which ordinary people, especially in the Punjabi heartland, willingly relinquish privilege in favour of freedom and dignity for all.[18]

We find important lessons in the extremely powerful and transformative politics symbolised by a new generation of Baloch women who have emerged to lead the national struggle. Their personal sufferings, and their ability to express them, compel their male comrades in the national movement, as well as relatively privileged feminists hailing from central regions, to recognise the multiple levels of oppression that exist in colonial conditions. Their commitment to overturning all structures of power embodies the revolutionary internationalism called for in our present conjuncture. Freedom for all nations, but also social emancipation from patriarchy and class within the proverbial nation.[19]

Such a politics – and vision – cannot be confined to the nation-state boundaries of Pakistan, or, for that matter, to any other contemporary bounded state. To quote Fanon:

[T]he building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emergence is ultimately the heart of all culture.

To invoke ‘culture’ for Fanon is to speak both to the particular and the universal, both the national and international, to the celebration of difference, but the transcendence of exploitation and oppression in all their forms, especially their class, racialised and gendered forms. If Pakistani progressives build the hegemonic coalition that brings together oppressed ethnic-nations, the working class movement and feminist movements and principles, their first task will be to challenge the Pakistani state’s historic enmity towards Afghanistan and India. To challenge the global-imperialised logic of capital that COVID-19 has exposed must start with the peoples of our own regions, those who, like us, have been brutalised by colonial state apparatuses and reactionary forces.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock that many of us are having to come to terms with is that, after years of positioning itself as an opponent of ‘globalisation’, the Left now finds itself at a crossroads where it must take up the mantle of an open and free world.

The pandemic has certainly not thrown up a sudden shift in the political mainstream: the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) that signaled the beginning of the end for the political-economic regime known as neoliberal globalisation directly led to collapse of the so-called ‘liberal centre’ in the Euro-American heartlands of the capitalist world-system. Trump, Bolsanaro, Boris Johnson and many others who have called for a repudiation of the liberal imperialism that characterised the Clinton-Blair interregnum came to power on the basis of nationalist sloganeering, even if being far more circumspect in destabilizing the complex and globalised configuration of American, British and western capital more generally.

While most of the metropolitan Left is engaged in discussion about how western societies emaciated by decades of neoliberalism can move beyond free market orthodoxy and rehabilitate egalitarian imaginaries, there has also been some recognition that a meaningful Left politics for the present and future must put the rest of the world –particularly the world’s most populous, historically imperialised zones of South Asia and Africa – front and centre. Just as in Pakistan the uneven developmental logics of colonialism continue to haunt us – in the form of a dominant (Punjabi) nation that controls the levers of state power and is the repository of capital – so the world is also indelibly shaped by the history of European colonial rule. There is no doubt that the rise of China as a world power is both cause and consequence of shifts in the global political economy, but the world’s financial centres – which suck resources and the best educated people away from the historic colonies of Europe – remain in the western heartlands of the capitalist world-system. Meanwhile, Europe and North America still remain the major contributors to the climate crisis. A genuine revolutionary internationalism thus demands that the western Left attend to the truth of imperial past and present – and then relinquish privilege accordingly – in much the same way as it demands of the Punjabi nation to do so within the construct known as Pakistan.

In many ways, the Left everywhere was intimately connected to the struggle of national liberation movements in a bygone era. Indeed, until the 1970s, to be committed to revolutionary politics was to speak of a world free of exploitation, both within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. So it must be again today.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar has been closely affiliated with the ethnic national movements across Pakistan’s peripheries for almost two decades. He is a writer, teacher and political worker who represents the Awami Workers Party.


[1] Not to mention what Marxists would call ‘class traitors’, or men who undertake the long and humbling process of recognizing and redressing their privilege in a deeply patriarchal society. There are certainly many more sub-categories of ‘progressives’ beyond these.

[2] I have been privileged to struggle alongside many Punjabis subjected to horrific state repression, including Jamil Omar, Salman Haider and Mehr Abdul Sattar.

[3] The well-publicised facts of Ali Wazir’s family having lost 18 members to war and terrorism speak for themselves – and bear in mind that his is a relatively privileged clan within the local context.

[4] See Muhammad Hanif’s powerful recent Urdu piece on the perils of being an educated Baloch:

[5] Taha Siddiqui and Declan Walsh, “In Pakistan, Detainees Are Vanishing in Covert Jails”, New York Times, July 25, 2015,

[6] Frantz Fanon,  Black skin, white masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 18.

[7] Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “The Politics of Common Sense”, podcast by James M. Dorsey, New Books in Middle Eastern Studies, NBN, November 29, 2018.

[8] The ethnic peripheries are internally differentiated. Take, for instance, the lush and relatively well-integrated Peshawar Valley in comparison to the war-ravaged tribal districts. There are further sociological faultlines within these variegated social formations that partly explain why some take on pro-establishment and others anti-establishment political positions.

[9] Nancy Fraser, “From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age”,  New Left Review 212, (July/August, 1995): 68

[10] For relatively recent comparative analyses of ethnic-nationalism in Pakistan, see Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, The politics of ethnicity in Pakistan: the Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir ethnic movements, (London: Routledge, 2012); and Adeel Khan, Politics of identity: ethnic nationalism and the state in Pakistan, (New York: Sage, 2005).

[11] I am not suggesting that Sindhi nationalists, for instance, have not been the target of the state’s ire over the past two decades. They have, but the Baloch and Pashtun cases are arguably more demonstrative for the argument I am presenting here.

[12] An investigative report from a decade ago rightly called the state’s coercive intrusion into Balochistan ‘Pakistan’s secret dirty war’:

[13] See the recent powerful exposition by Hurmat Ali Shah in this regard:

[14] Pashtuns are also better integrated economically within Pakistan compared to the Baloch.

[15] If Reko Diq, Saindak and Gwadar Port are contemporary examples of multinational capital combining with the military to expropriate the Baloch nation, Thar’s coal and Sindh’s marine resources/oil and gas are parallel examples, just as Waziristan and other Pashtun tribal regions at the epicentre of the ‘War on Terror’ are pillaged for their mineral deposits.

[16] Here I am not referring only to the strategic differences between national movements on the question of violent or non-violent means to challenge state oppression, but also to the overt conflict that takes place more and more often between ethnic-nationalists, Marxists and feminists. While productive tensions are welcome, and even necessary, the ‘competition of oppressions’ that often plays out in digital spaces is entirely counter-productive and serves only to bolster the hegemonic triad of colonial statecraft, class exploitation and patriarchal power relations.

[17] Of the banning of JQSM-Arisar, a largely peaceful political organisation that has in recent times raised the issue of Sindhi missing persons, is obvious evidence of the state’s growing intolerance towards any kind of national assertion. See

[18] The example of PTM is important insofar as many young Pashtuns – including those associated with nationalist parties – were either passive or even acceded to the statist/imperialist logics of the ‘War on Terror’ until the PTM erupted into existence, thus providing an avenue for a political position for which no organisational form previously existed (or even seemed possible). This is both to note that revolutionary subjects cannot be willed into existence – the PTM, was, after all, a spontaneous uprising – and the fact that latent feelings can indeed be given concrete form if the political vision is articulated by a small yet politically conscious critical mass.  

[19] Mahrang Baloch is one such shining example. Her recent Urdu column on the suffering of Baloch women and how to deepen the national movement is essential reading:


It is Right to Rebel

By Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

End Times?

At a time in history when human expectations of the future are beginning to resemble sci-fi reality, COVID-19 has abruptly disrupted these fantasies. The manner in which the mightiest empire appears helpless in front of a virus makes for both a terrifying and humbling spectacle. The sight of the greatest military and economic power in human history, the United States, spectacularly failing to protect its own population, reveals the limitation of a system that privileges corporate interest and military domination over adequate investment in health care and education.

With the US as the horizon of desire for the rest of the world, it is not surprising that the vulnerabilities of Third World regarding investment in care were woefully exposed. The lack of adequate health facilities are compounded by the fact that a lockdown means food scarcity and unemployment for poorer sections of society. In pursuit of the mirage of unbridled development, Third World elites abdicated the responsibility of taking care of their citizens, making the current adjustment incredibly painful for the public.

It is clear that we are experiencing an intense feeling of loss of a world, a melting away of long held certainties. Inhabiting the end times can produce a subjectivity that can be both melancholic and inward-looking, suspending political action in the midst of pervasive confusion. Yet, before participating actively in political praxis, it is crucial to remember the frameworks and horizons that have lost their vitality. In other words, we must fix our vision on the elements that have died so that we can bury them, thus clearing the way for the recommencement of radical thought.

Clearing the Way for Radical Thought

Three key certainties of Pakistan’s ideological compasses need to be discarded. The first is the militaristic culture induced by a sense of pervasive insecurity combined with nostalgia for an imagined Muslim past. The paranoia of being besieged by enemies (both internal and external) stems out of our colonial history, with the state perpetually feeling threatened by its own subjects. As historian Mark Condos has shown in his book, The Insecurity State, the excessive resources allocated to the British Indian military stemmed from a deep unease with local populations. Militaristic violence became a recurrent language of communication between colonial officials and their Indian subjects.

50Pakistan inherited its military infrastructure from the British colonial state

Pakistani elites inherited this infrastructure of the colonial state and used it with precision against political opponents, leading to widespread accusations of treason against their own citizenry. The postcolonial addition made by Pakistani elites is to rent out its military capacity to global powers, while also giving this militarised logic of governance an Islamic façade, imbibing it with a sense of religious destiny to be fulfilled through Jihad.

Yet, the cost of our bloated military budget has exposed the inadequate attention paid to our health and education sectors, as well as leaving few funds for productive economic development. With COVID-19 and other epidemic and climate catastrophes on the horizon, we cannot afford to perpetuate fantasies of regional domination or carry the burden of bloated militaries that are more often used against our own people.

Second, we must give up on the notion that a return to civilian rule would mean a return to some form of normalcy. Even if one is able to get rid of the military-backed PTI regime, the two conventional parties, the PPP and the PML-N, do not have a substantial alternative vision to deal with the growing crisis of a purely parasitic form of capitalism. There seems to be a convergence of all political actors on imposing the IMF-plans, facilitating big industrialists and land mafias while repressing the question of land reforms.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, of PPP, and Maryam Nawaz, of PML-N, are widely viewed as the new faces of the traditional dynastic parties.

This is partly a result of the social classes that these parties represent, including the decadent feudal and industrial elites of our country that are only sustained through bailouts at the expense of the public. In the absence of a vision for a different form of social relations, all parties are reduced to mere managers of a broken system, thus blurring the dialectic between military and civilian rule that has sustained political antagonism for so long.

Finally, we must abandon the illusion of capitalist development that has been thrust upon us for the past seventy years. In our desire to “catch-up” to the West, we have facilitated the country’s industrial elites while neglecting social sectors and repressing demands for wealth distribution. Although we were told that the generation of wealth at the top would trickle down in the form of jobs and taxes, we have instead witnessed the emergence of monstrous monopolies that have little regard for labour or environmental laws, and are notoriously efficient at escaping the tax net. The achievement of this “development” acquired after decades of subsidies to the elites is that we have not even managed to provide safe drinking water to citizens, with 40 percent of deaths occurring in Pakistan due to waterborne diseases.

The current government’s decision to hand out bailouts to the construction industry, which has the lowest rates of secure jobs, also exposes the limits of an imagination bounded by capitalism’s logic. We must begin to chart a different path that privileges meeting social needs through redistribution of wealth, rather than accruing more profits for the elites. It is only when we recognise that our political imagination is exhausted, and that we are caught in a repetitive cycle of destruction, that we will begin to confront the challenge of reimagining the very coordinates of our existence.

Where Can We Begin The New Journey?

A key passage that Marx quotes from Communist Manifesto in Capital Volume I ends with the following:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

What was Marx trying to say when he wrote these lines? For Marx as well as for Lenin, Marxism was not a theory describing the processes of the economy, focusing on how much production, financialisation and industrial growth a society experiences. For them, economic relations are relations between people, relations between actually existing beings, which are formed by practical human activity. In the middle of this pandemic any political strategy and political program must start from this great lesson by two of the most formidable Marxist thinkers: “Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” We believe humankind is very near this realisation.

All over the world, a growing number of people are grasping this reality that Marx argued would be the result of the constant disorders and changes in capitalist production. Today, in France, USA, Italy, UK and many other countries, workers are forming committees, coalitions and organising general strikes. Last week in Lahore working class families protested against the unavailability of food. Doctors in Quetta protested against the unavailability of PPEs. As we stressed in our last article, the situation is going to be much worse for the working class in the coming months. 

Some may argue that the conclusions that we are drawing from this crisis are unfounded, exaggerations or even not radical enough. But this emphasis on the inevitable triumph of human dignity and socialism must be our subjective position if we are to explore the latent possibilities of a better future laying beneath the spectacular decay of capitalism on display today. Lenin provides a lesson in such a strategic optimism in the midst of despair.

“We who are members of the Marxist movement may not live to see the world revolution”. Lenin wrote these lines only a month before the Russian Revolution. Despite his grim personal doubt, Lenin was actively organising his party and a writing his famous book, State and Revolution, that would imagine a post-capitalist order and trace its development within the grim reality of the present. Despite his personal uncertainty Lenin wholeheartedly organised the masses in that period. This is how we as Marxists must think, recognising the contingency of the situation while ceaselessly preparing for the inevitable battles.

Vladmir Lenin was a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of the 20th century

The Coming Storms

We can already see the unravelling of the system, as it lays bare its incapacity to care for the citizens. Consider the horrific scenes last week from Quetta. Doctors and other health workers were protesting against the dangerous shortage of PPE. Fears amplified with the tragic death of Dr. Usama Riaz, a young medical professional who lost his life by catching the virus on the frontlines. Yet, the Balochistan government responded to the genuine concerns of health workers by unleashing police violence on them and arresting a number of young doctors. The arrest of frontline warriors in the fight against an ongoing pandemic makes it difficult to discern whether those at the helm are more cruel or incompetent. Both are unpardonable in the midst of an emergency.

What we are witnessing is a sharpening of the struggle between the managers of this defaulting system and those whose existence is now at stake. It would be naïve to immediately present alternative proposals without taking stock of the development of the workers movement. Thus, the task today is not to provide abstract slogans but to intimately attach ourselves to the unfolding of the class struggle, and reconstruct our horizons based on concrete social upheavals.

It is only from within the space of these struggles that we can trace the hopes, courage and creativity of the working masses. As we participate in the great experiments of resistance and cooperation, we must withhold judgement on the trajectory these struggles take and the new anti-capitalist possibilities they open. In these turbulent times, full of contingency and pregnant with multiple possibilities, we should hold dear the eternal maxim that guides the action of the oppressed, “It is Right to Rebel”.

Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.

Zahid Ali is a member of the Haqooq e Khalq Movement and currently working as research assistant at LUMS.

A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Our Times

Reviewed by Shmyla Khan

[Sheryl] Sandberg and her ilk see feminism as a handmaiden of capitalism. They want a world where the task of managing exploitation in the workplace and oppression in the social whole is shared equally by ruling-class men and women.

Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, in “Feminism for the 99% – A Manifesto”, deliver scathing criticism of mainstream feminism, which they term as “equal opportunity feminism”. They see contemporary feminism at a crossroads, a clear choice between popular feminism and a socialist feminism that rejects patriarchy along with oppressive, racist, patriarchal structures. While many feminists have mounted a critique of the “lean-in” brand of feminism, what makes Feminism for the 99% important is that it expounds on political alternatives. The book is a call to arms as it offers valuable lessons for feminists, both young and old, to realign their politics with the larger fights against late-capitalism.

The book is in conversation with the biggest crises of our times: the economic crisis in which the contradictions of capitalism have manifested in unprecedented income inequalities around the world; an ecological crisis in which climate change poses an existential threat to the planet that we inhabit; the rise of white supremacy and fascism; and the crises around the imagination of feminism. The authors seek to advance a political project that encompasses these problems, not in the language of intersectionality that populates modern progressive movements, but through a critique of the structures that underpin these crises.

While the target of the book is the wider public, it seems to speak directly to feminists and diagnoses the limitations of mainstream feminist interventions. The “gender question” has long been de-politicised and confined to gender studies departments and neoliberal development projects. Feminist politics is often an appendage to most political manifestos, never the foundation. Most interventions seeking to “protect women” through law and policy have benefited only a few women, while working within structures, or, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, use the master’s tools, rather than dismantling the master’s house.

The book seeks to expand the horizons of feminist politics beyond the narrow focus on gender-based violence and harassment (in fact it spends remarkably little time on the subject), to all types of structural violence: from the exploitation of garment workers in the global South to low-paid immigrant women working in homes as care workers. Furthermore, the authors do not shy away from critiquing the hollow calls for sisterhood and feminist solidarity that prevails in feminist discourse, arguing that sisterhood should be a consequence of feminist struggle, but cannot be a starting point. Sisterhood often assumes the narrative of the dominant, which has historically been white, upper-class women, and obscures the different forms of oppression that women of colour face. The manifesto calls for a universal struggle where issues of class, racism and gender are connected. However, the authors are wary of conventional forms of universality in which internal differences are ignored. Taking into account critiques on both sides, the politics espoused in the book manages to strike a balance between traditional exclusionary politics and the divisiveness of pure identity politics.

The language of the book is accessible, direct and incisive. Though grounded in larger academic debate and theory, it does presume some prior knowledge of these subjects. Spanning less than 100 pages, the book has a broad audience in mind, but sometimes slips into in-speak when addressing particular forms of politics. 

The first section of the book addresses current modes of politics in eleven theses, critiquing contemporary politics and status quo structures. The second half lays out an explicit agenda in the form of a manifesto, presenting an expansive view of the crisis of capitalism from the lens of multiple contradictions: ecological, political and reproductive. The authors point out that the exploitation of capitalism needs to be understood both in terms of the surplus value extracted from labour through profit-making, as well as from the exploitation of labour that is not valued, which the authors term as “people-making”, i.e. the unpaid care work and domestic work disproportionately performed by women. The authors reframe the crisis of care work as a structural problem, connecting the women’s struggle with the larger struggle against economic exploitation.

The book starts and concludes with scenes of the feminist strikes on 8th March, calling on the readers to repoliticise International Women’s Day. “Brushing aside tacky baubles of depoliticisation–brunches, mimosas, and Hallmark cards–the strikers revived the day’s all but forgotten historical roots in working-class and socialist feminism” that was espoused in the vision of German socialist-feminists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin in 1911. 

The manifesto rings true in our context, and speaks directly to young feminists organising Aurat Marches across the country. The book presents a political project that eschews both neoliberalism and progressive politics dominating our mainstream. The latter holds a progressive veneer, but is still grounded in the politics of individuality and market capitalism. This is particularly true of the dominant discourse around LGBTQ rights, which, while accepting various sexual identities, tends to be framed within the narrow confines of struggles such as marriage equality. This discourse is critiqued for commodifying queer identity, and failing to question the structure of economic inequality. The book can be an uncomfortable read, as it so directly rejects so much of the language and touchstones of progressive feminism today.

Image source: Folio Books

The tone of Feminism for the 99% is urgent. The political undertaking is ambitious. For the authors, their predecessor is “The Communist Manifesto” penned by Marx and Engels. The authors’ project is to address the spectres haunting the entire planet, not just Europe, but from the hacia la huelga (‘feminist strikes’) in Spain to the feminist struggles in Chile. In 2018 in Spain, more than 5 million workers staged two-hour walkouts on International Women’s Day to demonstrate the collective power of women’s labour by paralysing tasks and activities that women do, both visible and invisible. Similarly, feminists in Chile have been an integral part of protests against state brutality, occupying universities and colleges to protest what they term as “femicide”. They also holding General Feminist Strikes on 8th March. For the book’s authors, the “spectre” is not the same as the one that concerned Marx in 1848. Rather, they are addressing the world at the time of publication in 2018.

The book is a fitting call to arms for our times, a manifesto that stands on the shoulders of socialist-feminist theory and written by women embedded in internationalist feminist struggles. In its final analysis, Feminism for the 99% offers a biting critique of the political binaries we are often confronted with, between conservative values and “progressive” liberalism, but it is also a book about hope. The hope that comes from feminists organising from below to imagine a politics that demands both “bread and roses”.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834105

Shmyla Khan is a feminist activist and works as a researcher on digital rights and gender.